Saturday, November 26, 2011

Abarat: Absolute Midnight by Clive Barker

Here was the mystery of creation, played out on a field of dirt and desperation. Candy could see it, this mystery. It was happening all around her. Out of the common earth of living beings, fragile and afraid, came the extrodinary forms of the glyph beyond conceiving of any single mind. She heard the voices of her fellow prisoners, daring to hope aloud; one voice whispering a second; two voices whispering a third, fourth ad fifth: I dreamed this…
We’re not dead yet.

And we’re
Here’s a problem with much of the fantasy I come across: it lacks a distinct feel of the fantastic. Sure, there are usually dragons, elves wizards, dwarves, trolls and the like. Magic swords. True, abiding love that lasts forever. Admittedly things that simply do not exist in the reality I occupy, but they are expected bits of fancy and rarely possess any true sense of spectacle and imagination. Then Clive Barker walks into the room saying, “You all may know what a Halfling is, but what the hell is a Geshrat, eh?”
In this third book of the planned Abarat quintet, we find our resourceful, if oddly named, Candy Quackenbush recently returned to the Abarat (an archipelago of 25 islands, each dedicated to an hour of the day plus one that exists outside of time, for the uninitiated) from the ruined remains of her home town, her head full of the spirit of the slain Princess Boa. Of course, while she endeavors to free herself of this interloping consciousness, the Queen of Midnight has begun to enact her plan to envelope the whole of the islands in darkness. As bad as the hag of Gorgossium may be, deeper terrors guide her from behind the veil of her own dark purposes and they do not wish well for the colorful denizens of the Abarat.
I have to admit that, sadly, I was not familiar with the series prior to this point. However, it is a testament to Barker’s skill that I was effortlessly brought into a tale nearly halfway finished and that the “catch up” moments required in any part of a larger narrative were woven seamlessly into the present tale. Sure, I was dropped in like a squalling babe fresh from the womb, but my perfectly reasonable confusion was dealt with summarily.
As fans of Barker’s other broad, spanning cycle (oh, how I wait to again swim the waters of Quiddity) will tell you readily, this is a man that will push the bounds of imagination and this book is fantasy in the truest sense of the word. Nothing here exists or has existed in any form I have run through and the experience is giddy, if a bit mind bending. Sewn-up sacks filled with sentient mud. An entire family of brothers stuffed into a single body and fighting amongst each other constantly (one of whom, John Mischief, is referred to as the shortest among them-I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that one). An evil witch who sews the souls of her victims into her dress. An actor named Legitimate Eddie. Self devouring words like Abarataraba. There really isn’t a good way to convey any of this without seeing it for yourself.
And the sights… Normally, I would only recommend the hardback editions for book snobs and completists like myself but this one comes with something worth much more than the heftier weight: the interior artwork Barker created to accompany the story. When dealing with so much outlandishness, the images do wonders to ground the experience. Plus, they are a delight to behold. Something that combines the visual textures of oil, chalk and crayon in vibrant splashes across the page. I have a tough time recalling when the $25 was more worth it.
None of that touches on the journey we are taken on, through the harrowing experiences and bright, incongruous bravery experienced between these pages. Things do get bleak indeed along this path, not just for Candy and Co., but for the whole of the Abarat and the proceedings are not kind upon the heart and eyes. Still, throughout it all there runs a thread of resilience and hope that was pleasantly surprising from a man whose early work was known for its cynicism and nihilistic tendencies. We may not be through this yet, not by a long shot, and the sun will never be as bright again as we remember but, as the quote at the beginning says “We’re not dead yet.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

Rotters, by Daniel Krauss

“My father spoke, and still I tried to listen, but my ears buzzed with the low hum of disease. He told me, and I tried to understand, that what we had done was something ancient and possibly noble, but also vilified and to be undertaken with the utmost solemnity; and that, most importantly, it was a craft passed down through generations, teacher to student, and as of tonight this group included not just my father, not just a clandestine group of men spread all across the country, but also, horrifyingly, me.

‘We’re called the Diggers,’ he said.”

Joey crouch is your average teenage boy right up to the day his mother dies and he finds himself placed in the care of a father he has never known. A gruff, grubby, curt and rather smelly man who lives in a spare, shabby shack who is all but non-existent in the house. Jeered and despised by both students and one particularly cruel teacher at his new school, he feels like he’s fallen into one of the crueler circles of hell, and that’s before he finds out what his father really does for a living. Before long, he demands his own part in the family business and finds himself neck deep in the final resting places of the dead, a part of an ages old tradition that is steadily losing hold and thrust into a fight that may mean the end for all diggers.

I’ll be damned if Daniel Kraus doesn’t kick the door right off the hinges with his first line: “Today is the day my mother dies.” A line which leads into several pages of unfounded paranoia before tragedy strikes inauspiciously, like a punch in the nuts. The tale Krauss is telling here isn’t pretty or kind, but it’s powerful and moving. We all know by now that being a teenager is just about the worst thing that can happen, and he deals with the struggle for identity amid bad choices and personal horror with grace and blunt force. This is, after all, the tale of a boy growing into a man, reconciling the known and unknown of his family history as his ideals of reality are shattered by what reality is revealing itself to be. All while learning the trade of a grave digger.

Obviously, there is plenty of focus on the coming of age aspect of the tale, the drama of growing up and the burgeoning relationship between a boy and the father who wasn’t there, but fans of gore aren’t left in the cold either. Fancy a dip in sloppy casket liquor? How about digging through ripe old remains for a choice bit of gold? How about dripping gashed hand sewn by the light of a waning moon? The work is messy and Danny boy doesn’t cover that up at any point. There is also plenty of intrigue and adventure; dirty, grubby fights and floods and death and destruction amid blackmail and lies covered by more dirt than the bodies they unearth.

Further, as a complete metal geek, I dug the name dropping that popped up occasionally. Sure, everyone expects Black Sabbath and Motorhead, but mentioning bands like High on Fire and Nachtmystium showed that Daniel either really knows his metal or he is at least willing to research it well. He even throws in a hefty shout out to Chicago locals Vorvolakas. Most people won’t care, but I thought it was cool.

I don’t have much to bitch about here, but there were some times that the story dragged a bit, bogged down in a wavering focus between coming of age, the relationship between father and son, the collapse of past traditions or a decision of personal placement between warring factions. It certainly wasn’t a story killer, but could have used a bit of smoothing out.

I’m not going to bother trying to sell this as a YA book that adults can appreciate, as it’s well rounded enough to simply be fiction with a hook teens can grab onto. Its just good, heartfelt, dirty and gritty fun in an old school gothic wrapper.

available on

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Day Terrors, Edited by Kfir Luzzato and Dru Paliasotti

I find myself in a bit of a predicament here. Day Terrors is the first anthology I have been asked to review that I submitted to and was rejected by. Any writer will tell you that rejection happens all the time, but haters still gonna hate and DAMN do I want to hate on this one. The question is: is the material inside really deserving of the hate?

There is a tendency towards over self-indulgent and self-conscious prose on display, something that occasionally ruins what should be a damn good story. A prime example of this is “The Woman in the Ditch”, by Scott Lininger, a story about the ugliness of racism culminating in blood and murder via sloth that should pack a hell of a punch. Unfortunately, the writing itself, told in first person from what we are to believe is a deep south redneck, hits the ear like someone trying to replicate the accent instead actually doing so (dropped g’s alone do not a redneck make) and it makes the story damn near impossible to read. There is also “A Day at the Beach”, which is, at its heart, very touching with the horror hitting in just the right spot, but is practically murdered by language and construction that feels stilted and stunted by attempts to sound erudite while coming across unnatural. I’ll save you the terror of “Atraxia’s” first line, whose mere construction made me want to chuck the book against a wall.

And there is quite a bit of first person narration, which we all know is a giant no-no.

But then comes John Jasper Owens’ “And the Crowd Goes Wild” making the end of the world via star worship incredibly person and absolutely terrifying. Damn thing kicked my ass. And “In Lieu of Flowers”, where Chad McKee uses our knowledge of what is coming to slowly and steadily ratchet up the tension on this well built tale of murder and revenge. And Gregory Miller, who, in “Miss Riley’s Lot”, effortlessly pulls off exactly what “The Woman in the Ditch” was straining so hard for. And Harper Hull's ode to the traditional monster tale passed down among family, “Daddy Long Legs” that also deals with familial loss in a way that grabbed me by the balls. And Aaron Polson swinging in with one of the few real monster tale, “Sea of Green, Sea of Gold” and does what M. Night Shaymalan couldn't: make a field of grass terrifying. Or the sober and heartbreaking way Lorna D. Keach approaches sacrifice in “Fiddleback.” Hell, do I need to tell you that Jason Sizemore knocked another one out with the Twilight Zone-ish ghost story “Lollipop.”

So the theme of the anthology is a little bland and too broad to do much for me (horror in the light of day isn't exactly a new concept) and it is at times a tad too British for my tastes, but I have to bend my pride a bit and admit that there is some damn good stuff here. Certainly, if you like your horror to be more of the human variety then you'll find plenty of joy here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Every Shallow Cut, by Tom Piccirilli

Shit. You think you know a guy, then he has to go flip the script on you and leave you flailing out in the cold, mumbling something about your favorite thermos through frostbitten lips. Yep, T-Pic the mighty has come back around with a quick shot to the solar plexus in the form of this new novella, but if you think you know what to expect from this extremely prolific man then you might want to read on.

Right from the get-go you find yourself forced into the head of a man living what seems like a medley of Hank Williams’ greatest hits: his career has flopped, his home has been foreclosed, the bank also took most of the things that filled it, what they left is sitting in the pawn shop and his wife left him. He does still have his dog, so at least there’s that. With nothing left to lose, a shiny new gun in his knapsack and his world collapsing around him, he decides to drive back to New York to confront the agent who’s left him hanging in the breeze and the brother he hasn’t spoken to in decades.

Piccirilli’s work has always been obsessed with the past; mistakes that can never be fixed, debts that will never be paid and a sense that somewhere, sometime, everything went wrong. Whether writing gothic, bizarre horror, westerns, crime fiction or straight up noir, it has always had the feel of noir, the feeling that he once described as someone heading towards a cliff, trying to hit the brakes but accidentally slamming on the gas. However, ESC goes well beyond noir with its overwhelming sense of bleak hopelessness and panic.

Don’t expect a good time reading this. In fact, it may well hit a bit too close to home for those who have intimate experience with its main focus: the collapse of those promises, the lies we were all told as we grew up: that all of our dreams would come true if we worked hard enough. His prose is precariously balanced between a dancing edge of poetry and the blunt face of a hammer, as powerful as it is painful, almost beautiful in its own hideous and horrendous way. The words race by between all too brief pauses and respites, running headlong into the darkness unable to stop were it willing. Anyone who has found themselves on the brink of absolute collapse, and especially those who have stumbled a step or two further, will find an accurate replication of the frantic terror that accompanies the experience.

To me, the most striking images that come up in the course of this tale are the ones that occur between the nameless narrator and his dog. This is the only being left that he has any sort of real connection with, the only one that cares about him as much as he cares about it and the results are scarring. There was one point (I won’t mention specifics, lest I spoil the full effect) that broke me down into full out sobs.

But there are some things people may not be happy with. The conscious decision to use first person with an unnamed narrator places the reader firmly in the midst of his situation, making it all hit that much harder, but it also makes it a bit hard to distinguish between fiction and outright confessional. Sticklers to the rules will be turned off immediately by this. Also ***minor spoiler alert*** the cliffhanger ending kind of drops the floor out from under the reader, leaving them without a satisfying conclusion. I think his intent was to disturb and disrupt without leaving an easy way out, just like the real world does to us all the time, but it will piss some of you off. ***end minor spoiler***

What we’re left with is a story that takes that earlier description of noir and twists it into a man driving break-neck towards a cliff, determined to fly off into the emptiness, only to wake up paralyzed from the neck down. A further extension of the Milton quote that opened A Lower Deep much earlier in his career.

order it directly from Chizine Publications.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Brain Cheese Buffet, by Edward Lee

Say it with me: Ed Mother Fucking Lee. Someone may have decided that Edward looks more professional, but we all know there's no other way to speak of the man. He's built a career on the backs of rednecks, cornholin', epic violence and a profound use of the term “peckersnot”. Now, the nice folks at Eraserhead Press's Deadite imprint have gifted us with this collection of Ed's classic short works, many of which still hold up quite well.

To be honest, the more notorious stories, such as “The McCrath Model SS40-C, Series S” and “The Dritiphilist” fell pretty flat on me. About a doctor forced to perform inventive and radical surgeries at the behest of a twisted gangster and a man obsessed with eating snot, respectively, they personify everything that detractors hold against Lee. This is the man at his simplest, writing purely to gross out by throwing as many sick images at the reader as possible and it kinda bores me. The same goes with “The Baby”, though that one did have a moment (involving a blowjob and a baby, if you must know) that was successful in hitting my gag button.

Then there are stories like “Mr. Torso”, which show him at his best. Sure, it's about a redneck who cuts the arms and legs off of hookers to turn them into baby factories and the detective trying to hunt him down, but there's more than that going on. Not only does it explore the value of an purely philosophical and logical life, but it also presents us with a “villain” committing atrocious acts for what he honestly believes to be the greater good for both society and his victims. Plus, it's got all the sex, violence, over the top redneck dialog and peckersnot a guy could ask for. No wonder it was nominated for a stoker. “Grub Girl in the Prison of Dead Women” is another one that struck me: a look into a possible future through the eyes of an undead prostitute that seethes with rage at the bigotry, hypocrisy and abuses of the republican resurgence of the late 90's and early 2000's.

If you're a fan of Lee's older, more extreme work who didn't manage to get any of these stories upon their original releases, you definitely want this and may already have it. If not, but you're curious about the roots of the hardcore movement or you're interested in checking out some of that earlier work without having to sell a child for a copy of Header or The Bighead, the price is certainly reasonable and you'll find some tasty treats. Anyone else shouldn't go into this expecting intricate characterization or much of an emotional core, but you will find sharp, quick stories that carry an amusing sense of wit and are sure to test the strength of your stomach at times.