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.

The Red Eye (Alliteration Ink), by K.W. Taylor

Meet Sam Brody, skeptic extraordinaire and late night host of The Red Eye, a radio show where he debunks myths of supernatural, psychic and otherworldly goofiness. So what does he do when he finds himself thrust neck deep into the same sort of stuff he professionally calls bullshit on? Say, for instance, items start exploding or flying around when he is near? Or the coworker who reeks of sulfur and the crazy redhead who calls him up, telling him about his dreams? Obviously, some craziness must ensue.

I am sorry if I sound a bit flippant in the above, but I was tossed around by the abrupt changes in both character and thematic thrust from the preceding House on Concordia Drive (an introduction to the character and, ostensibly, his world) to this work. One of the things that impressed me about that story was that it didn’t go for the obvious and overused approach of having the skeptic changed to a believer by the wild and wacky ways of the spiritual realm. This story, however, falls into that same trap. Similarly, I like how honestly Concordia portrayed a selfish, egotistical bastard in the midst of a collapsing personal life without demonizing or glorifying him. Again, here we have him quickly shift to a slightly gruff teddy bear once he has a girlfriend to be all cuddly with. The shift was too jarring for me and that affected my experience.

At its heart, The Red Eye seems to be an attempt to tell a very traditional fairy tale in a modern context. You’ve got the white knight, the wizened wizard, the maiden fair and the big, bad dragon. I get the attempt, but it causes several problems. The big bad is a cardboard cutout of evil, with no sense of motivation or personality beyond that. The feminine interest has no place in the story outside of being something for the hero to save. There never seems to be any doubt that the hero will triumph. The window dressing is updated, but the problems with this type of tale are not addressed and it hurts the story.

These issues were all the more frustrating when placed next to the obvious talent on tap here. The dialogue had personality. There were touches of how the relationships worked that were gorgeous. Taylor’s prose flowed as clean as a mountain stream. It says a lot that, despite the issues I had, I flew through reading this. And Concordia was nearly brilliant. The Red Eye just seems bland in comparison.

Cover art: Amanda Beach provides a fairly basic representation for the story. Personally, I find the reaching figure a little strained and a bit cheesy, but not obnoxiously so. While it fits the story okay, it isn’t particularly striking.

The formula at work here is classic, and perhaps so for a reason. Likely, you will either find it comforting or aggravating.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Spook House (Seventh Star) by Michael West

Sometimes, I want a story that is deeply intellectual. A sprawling, intense experience that forces me to second guess all of my assumptions about life, the universe and everything. Sometimes I want to be emotionally rended with prose that cuts deeply into my feely-feels. And sometimes, I just want to read a fun story about big bad monsters that lets me forget my crappy life for a little bit.  Spook House fell pretty clearly into that last category.

The old Fuller Farm. You know the one. Where that crazy so-and-so killed those people before tossing himself into a thresher. It seems he nudged open a door to someplace else when he did that and the door is about to be kicked wide open. Welcome back to Harmony, Indiana, folks.

Let’s get this out of the way. I didn’t find anything groundbreaking here. It’s a pretty straightforward Lovecraftian horror, albeit with a bit more focus on people and plot than Howie was known for. It won’t change any hearts or minds and won’t blow apart and expectations. All the same, I don’t think that is what Michael West aimed to do.

What I did find is butter-smooth prose and a razor-keen sense of how to draw out suspense. I found a story that pulled me along the shoot like a greased up pig and plenty of greasy-grimy people guts decorating the scenery. I even found myself caring about the main characters a bit and was quite impressed at how whole and solid he makes this little slice of Indiana feel. I haven’t gotten this strong of a sense of the personality of place in a while. Most importantly, I had fun. That’s all that matters here.

The best analog I can think of is AC/DC. Michael West doesn’t change anything about horror fiction any more than those limeys changed Rock N’ Roll, but only a soulless bastard doesn’t get excited when they here that introductory clang of Hell’s Bells.

Artwork: Not a whole lot to say, since it is a pretty straight forward representation of the story inside. Mathew Perry does evoke some of those old B-movie posters and the little boy joy that takes me over in the wake of those images. It’s also worth noting that there are two interior pieces to show you what the big bads look like. They carry the same style and feel.