‘Between Time and Terror’ – A Review

Not long ago my local library had a major book sale, and I went hog-wild, picking up a metric crap-ton of mostly old sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks (a quarter for paperbacks, fifty cents for trades, a dollar for hardbacks—you can’t go wrong with prices like that), including a few anthologies. This one, Between Time and Terror, edited by Robert Weinberg, et al, got the honor of being my first read from that glorious haul.

Granted, many of these stories were already familiar to me,  but all-in-all it was a worthwhile trip through memory lane and nice introduction to some other stories I’d not yet read. The theme of the book was science fiction meets horror, and boy were there some doozies in here. The stories were mostly arranged in the chronological order of their writing, so it was no surprise that the first entry was from the man who practically invented this sub-genre, H. P. Lovecraft, represented here by one of his best pieces, The Colour Out of Space.  Decades after it was written, this story still contains one of the single most chilling lines ever put on paper:

Questioning tactfully, Ammi could get no clear data at all about the missing Zenas. “In the well—he lives in the well—” was all that the clouded father would say.

Even out of context, the line makes me shiver. Second up was Frank Belknap Long’s The Man with a Thousands Legs, which, following such a timeless masterpiece as the Lovecraft story, came across as quaint and a little too smirk-worthy for this anthology. In another anthology—say, Old-Timey Science Gone Wrong or some such—this would’ve been a fine entry, but while it technically fit the theme of the book, I just felt there were better choices that could’ve been made from this author (The Hounds of Tindalos anyone?) Then we had Clark Ashton Smith’s atmospheric extra-planetary tale The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, which really should’ve been the follow-up to Lovecraft.

For my money, however, the star of this collection was the fourth entry, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Who Goes There?, the novella on which several film adaptations, including most notably John Carpenter’s The Thing, have been based. I’d heard of this story but never read it before, figuring it was probably something akin to the mediocre 1950s film. Boy, was I ever wrong. Of the three films based on the story (so far), Carpenter’s comes the closest to capturing the tension and paranoia of a story that was remarkably first published in 1937 and that still holds up to this day. Indeed, if I hadn’t known the date of its initial publication, I would swear this story had actually been written within the last thirty years. This alone was worth the quarter I paid for the book.

After this, the short if effective Robert Heinlein piece They felt almost like an afterthought. In fact, overall this book could’ve done with some more thoughtful editing. With three editors running the show, I suspect it was a bit of the too-many-cooks problem, but there you go. Heinlein’s short is followed by Robert Bloch’s It Happened Tomorrow, a story that, although not badly written, definitely shows its age in a number of ways. Asleep in Armageddon by Ray Bradbury was an original and nicely creepy if not all that scary tale of an astronaut biding his time on a strange world as the alien voices in his head attempt to drive him mad.

Arthur C. Clarke can always be counted on to give an entertaining story, and A Walk in the Dark, while fairly simple and straightforward, delivers with excellent timing and atmosphere to spare. Philip K. Dick’s The Father-Thing was probably my  second favorite entry in this collection, after Who Goes There? A young suburban boy has good reason to believe his dad has been replaced by some kind of body-snatcher and decides to investigate. Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman, about an abused mutant child,  was more sad than frightening, and Isaac Asimov’s Hell-Fire, a two page short-short, recasts the beginning of the Nuclear Age in very sinister terms.

A couple of the stories in this collection really felt like a stretch as far as the science fiction aspect went. Dean Koontz’s Nightmare Gang answers the question, what would happen if a sadistic psychopath with horrible mental powers became leader of an outlaw biker gang? Not a bad story (I’m generally not a fan of Koontz’s novels, but he’s more successful in short form); it just felt out of place here. But the real head-scratcher here was David Morrell’s Orange Is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity. First, I have to point out that this is one of my all-time favorite horror stories, and it’s always a pleasure to read. In this piece, a Vincent van Gogh analog named Van Dorn who went insane and took his own life provides the backdrop for the tale of a college art student who watches helplessly as his best friend, an aspiring Van Dorn scholar, inexplicably falls into the exact same patterns the Victorian painter did, and begins to repeat the path that led him to insanity. It’s a complex story with a hell of a payoff, but nothing about it suggests science fiction, and it really didn’t belong in this anthology.

But I’m getting out of order now. After the Koontz piece came the truly disturbing Soft by F. Paul Wilson, about a new disease that’s picking off humanity by dissolving their bones and turning them into immobile blobs. Meanwhile, John Shirley’s Ticket to Heaven, an early cyberpunk offering, wonders what would happen if we developed the tech to vacation in Heaven while our bodies remain safe and alive back on Earth. (The short answer: it’s not as great for humanity as you might think.) Dan Simmons Metastasis, which is also found in his excellent Prayers to Broken Stones collection that I recommend highly, deals with invisible cancer vampires—invisible, that is, to all but the story’s protagonist. And last but not least is Clive Barker’s The Age of Desire, a modern day take on mad science where the subject of an experiment develops uncontrollable sexual desires for . . . everyone and everything.

Overall, not a terrible collection. Some bona fide classics offset the lesser entries, and a couple of baffling inclusions with respect to the book’s theme could easily have been replaced with, say, Stephen King’s The Jaunt, Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream or even Connie Willis’s haunting All My Darling Daughters. At any rate, all of these stories can be found elsewhere, but what really appeals about collections like these is seeing where the editors’ heads are at and comparing the stories to see how the theme has progressed. Between Time and Terror was released in 1995, and I’d be curious to see which pieces would be collected by the same editors in 2017.

Grade: B+

Trezza Azopardi’s ‘Remember Me’ – A Review

Trezza Azzopardi’s sophomore novel Remember Me may well be the most depressing book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which at least ended on a hopeful note. No such luck here. Remember Me is the story of a thieving British bag lady, whose ill-fated life is traced from her lowly birth around the outset of WWII to the final shocking revelation of how she came to be the mostly forgotten wretch and outcast she is when we first meet her in her seventies.

Our heroine is known by a variety of names throughout the course of the book depending on who you ask and where we are in the arc of her life. Known to her parents as Lilian, she loses her mentally unstable mother to an unspecified illness when she is still a very young child. Her alcoholic father, unable to cope with the little girl after the death of his wife, soon shuffles her off to her stern and emotionally distant widower grandfather’s place—where her name is changed to Patricia and her “tell-tale” flaming red hair is died dark. This is more or less the last we see of dear old Dad, and Granddad barely tolerates her presence. However, she does befriend her grandfather’s foreign boarder, Mr. Stadnik (whom it is hinted might be a displaced European Jew), a kind older man who becomes something of an emotional anchor for Lilian in her early years.

Eventually her grandfather sends her, along with Stadnik, away to his widowed sister’s failing farm. Things go alright for awhile . . . until Patricia’s aunt and Stadnik begin a romantic relationship that earns the displeasure of the local cleric, and Stadnik too abandons her, though (mercifully) not by his own choice. Young Patricia nevertheless grows into early adolescence under her aunt’s laissez-faire watch and momentarily finds love with a local boy, Joseph, who knocks her up and then splits. Yet again abandoned, in order to avoid the coming scandal Patricia leaves her aunt, her last remaining family member, for good. Pregnant, friendless and now without family, troubled, naive and uneducated, with less and less to keep her tied to reality, the poor girl is taken in by a charlatan spiritualist and his caustic and jealous female assistant, who promptly change her name to Winnie and exploit her growing mental instability, making her their star attraction. They also force her to submit to a back alley abortion and introduce her to an abhorrent client of theirs, a sleazy shoemaker with a taste for adolescent girls, and it only gets worse from here.

As Lilian/Patricia/Winnie/?’s circumstances continue to grow steadily more awful, the reader is left devastated, hoping—nay,  praying—for some kind of redemption for the protagonist after a life chock full of misfortune and heartache. That’s usually how these things go, right? Alas, gentle reader, this is not that kind of book. The closest we get to a happy ending for our girl is a final peek into her thought process at the end, a means of understanding why she has become the person she has.

I’ll level with you: this was a hard book to read. I’m a fan of horror stories of all kinds, but this to me is the most horrific sort I’ve ever encountered because it is not merely plausible, it is the kind of thing that happens all too often, frequently right under our noses. As you might expect, there’s a lesson here about the plight of the homeless, and it is deftly handled if so relentlessly depressing at times that more than once I felt compelled to stop reading. Ultimately my sense of moral obligation won out, and I am at least glad I read to the end, even if I didn’t get the relief I would’ve liked. No, this is not the sort of book you read for pleasure; you should know that going into it. But it is the kind of book that gives you perspective on a minority that exists in our everyday world but which we rarely take notice of, and that’s the point of both the book’s title and its main character’s constantly shifting name and identity. Here is a person who has floated through her entire life almost transparently (not by choice, at least not at first) like the ghosts she believes she communicates with, and like those ghosts, she clamors not to be forgotten, to not have lived her entire sad and crummy life in vain. Let’s hope she doesn’t.

Grade: B

Stephen M. Irwin’s ‘The Dead Path’ – A Review

The Dead Path was Australian author Stephen M. Irwin‘s debut novel, and as debuts go, it isn’t half bad. The book follows antiques expert and guy-who-can-see-ghosts Nicholas Close (whose physical description put me in the mind of Neil Gaiman circa Good Omens for some reason), an Australian living abroad in England when his beautiful young wife meets an accidental end and sends Nicholas into a downward spiral that leads him back to his old home town of Tallong in Southern Australia to lick his wounds. But something is very much amiss in the otherwise peaceful and languid community where Nicholas grew up, and it’s connected to both the murder of his childhood buddy Tristram and the premature death of his own father. With all this tragedy in Nicholas’s life, it’s exceedingly obvious that something horrible is residing in Tallong, and he must take it upon himself to find out exactly what.

When he begins to investigate the town’s history, Nicholas discovers that children have a history of disappearing in Tallong as far back as the town’s founding. And so, with the help of an assortment of oddball characters—his slightly clairvoyant sister, an Indian priest, the widow of Tristram’s brother, a spunky 10-year-old girl—Nicholas delves into the beating heart of Tallong’s evil: an ancient patch of woods off Carmichael Road inhabited by an evil older than the town itself.

I would love to say that the novel was a real page-turner from beginning to end. Unfortunately, I can’t quite make that claim. Despite a pretty solid (if not particularly original) premise, the story takes a bit of time to build, and the big reveal of who’s behind the child murders isn’t terribly shocking. Think Hansel and Gretel and you won’t be far off the mark. In fact, there is something quite reminiscent of the darker Grimm’s fairy tales here, updated for a modern audience. The villain is not entirely unsympathetic, but she is fairly cookie-cutter and a bit too cartoonish to be fully effective at inducing chills. That said, the final confrontation between Nicholas and the Big Bad is pretty tense. The final act of the book is when it really shifts into high gear, and it’s a nail-biter for sure.

In terms of flaws, there are some plot issues that need work, such as the fact that one of the key characters doesn’t make an appearance until late in the book and could’ve used some fleshing out so that the reader would’ve had more emotional investment in her when she winds up in peril near the end of the story. Likewise, perhaps an early scene or two of the villain in action would’ve been nice. It’s not like the mystery of her identity was all that compelling anyway, and it would’ve been better storytelling to flesh out her history over the course of the book rather than have the big info dump at the end where she explains to Nicholas where she came from and why she does what she does, a technique so cliched at this point it’s almost parody. Oh, and if you’re terrified of spiders, you may want to avoid this one as there are a lot of spiders in it. Then again, you’re reading a horror novel. Why wouldn’t you want to be frightened by an army of arachnids?

On the positive side, the writing is crisp and Irwin displays a real knack for poetic turns of phrase, especially in his descriptions of nature. Most of his central characters are pretty well delineated too. I especially liked Nicholas’s sister Suzette and wish she’d played a bigger role in the book’s final act, but at least she wasn’t killed off. She and Nicholas could even team up for a sequel. With her psychic impressions and knowledge of witchcraft and Nicholas’s ability to see ghosts (“I see dead people . . .”), they would make a kick-ass paranormal investigation team. I was also quite fond of the Indian priest Reverend Anand, though the older priest was a bit much. I think he was supposed to be likably cantankerous, but instead he just came off as racist and unpleasant. The appearance of a certain famous nature spirit at the end was a nice touch—I could see Guillermo del Toro’s influence in its description. Overall, a solid if imperfect opener for a promising writer.

Grade: B

Stephen King’s ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams – A Review

I hadn’t read any new Stephen King fiction—new for me anyway—since taking on From a Buick 8 three years ago. (I did reread The Shining at the end of last year, of course.)  I have a particular soft spot for King’s shorter fiction, so a new collection of his stories was certainly something to look forward to. Let me tell you, I don’t buy new books very often, but I shelled out the money for this thick, oddly-shaped paperback volume at my local Walmart with nary a second thought, and I’m pretty glad I did.

I’ll be honest: early into the book I had my doubts that these stories were going to offer me the chills I so expected from the king of horror. Aside from Mile 81,  a wicked little number about a man-eating car from outer space (no one does evil cars quite like Stephen King) that served as the book’s opener, the first few tales, while interesting and well-written, were not all that disturbing. Premium Harmony, Batman and Robin Have an Altercation and A Death are more meditations on mortality and human nature than horror stories proper, and The Dune and Bad Little Kid felt like decent if unremarkable Twilight Zone episodes, complete with Shyamalan-sized twist endings. Not that I mind either of those types of fables if done well, and these certainly were. It’s just that in a book titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, I rather hoped there would be more frights for my buck, but up till that point it had been more like The Market of Mild Thrills.

But then the book really took off, and with a couple of exceptions (Blockade Billy, about a mentally unstable baseball player, didn’t do much for me, though to be fair I am not a fan of the sport, and That Bus Is Another World, following a businessman in NYC who may or may not have witnessed an act of violence in a nearby bus while on his way to meeting, was a little too generic), the remaining stories—and a pair of poems—were quite good. Of the two poems, the first, The Bone Church, is my favorite. It’s about a group of men on an ill-fated jungle mission, and it could easily have been fleshed out into an actual story, yet it feels perfectly vital and intriguing, stark and pared down in verse. It also marks the transitional point where the book finally shifts into high gear. The other poetic composition, Tommy, concerns a young man who died of leukemia in 1969. The titular character is apparently based loosely on someone King actually knew, thus giving the poem a keen personal edge. On display here are all the telltale codes and signposts of an era King has long excelled at evoking in his fiction. The author is equally at home framing that era in lyric form. Indeed, this almost feels like it could be part of a larger cycle of 60s-themed poetry, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

The Bone Church is followed by Morality, one of the strongest stories in the collection, containing as it does one Reverend George Winston, possibly the book’s most memorable character, a man all too disturbingly normal in his monstrosity. The act for which he is willing to pay his financially struggling young nurse Nora $200,000 is truly shocking. The other standouts in this collection are Mister Yummy, in which an elderly gay man sees his death personified as an attractive young man he once encountered in a dance club, The Little Green God of Agony, featuring another questionable clergyman (one apt to remind you of that demonic minister from Poltergeist II), Cookie Jar,  in which a dark secret is buried beneath the eponymous item’s unending supply of gingersnaps, macaroons and snickerdoodles, and my favorite piece in the book, Ur, starring a very special Amazon Kindle that can access books and newspapers from multiple realities.

All in all, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was a fascinating collection, not least of which because it demonstrates that King’s writing skills have improved immensely over the last few years. While the book is short on traditional scary stories, it shows off the author’s tremendous range as a writer, and for that reason this collection would be a good sampler for readers who may otherwise shy away from his work, as well as a nice book to give to your snooty friends who prefer literary fiction to genre work.

Grade: A

Why Horror?: Film Review

Recently I created a music-themed survey for my friends and family on Facebook, and I began it by answering all of the questions myself.  The last question on the survey was, which song would you say best sums up who you are?  For my part, after a bit of mental seesawing, I finally arrived at Tool’s Forty-Six & 2. If you don’t know the song, it deals with Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow.  Very simply, in Jungian psychology, our shadow is our (mostly) hidden dark side, those aspects of ourselves that are negative and that we don’t like to face, as well as a personal repository for all the social stigmas and taboos we must process in order to be a functional member of society. In the song, Maynard expresses his desire to boldly face down his shadow, to move through it and past it in order to fully become who he is.

This is a concept I am fully invested in, and for me at least, the horror genre has long been my preferred route through my own shadow. Which is why I am not only a fan of the genre, but also fascinated by the psychology of horror fans generally. What exactly is it about horror that attracts its true fans? Are such people well-adjusted or not? How do horror fans stack up against non-fans when it comes to life coping skills? In the documentary film Why Horror? (directed by Nicolas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay), the film’s subject, Tal Zimerman, sets out to answer some of those questions, and for the most part, he does so quite spectacularly.

Zimerman begins his examination of horror by peering into its history, beginning with religious iconography. Having grown up in a small Southern town, I am certainly aware of the human monstrosity and violence that permeates Christianity. This is the religion whose central symbol is a guy nailed to a tree after all, and whose holy book describes, among other atrocities, a dude getting a tent stake nailed through his head, a young woman being gang raped and then ripped to pieces (with her father’s approval no less), God causing disobedient followers to devour their own children, God causing bears to maul forty-two boys because they teased a bald guy, God giving his blessing to Moses and his followers to murder all the Midianites they’d conquered, including the little boys, and to save all the virginal young girls for themselves . . .

Are you detecting a trend here? Not to make this political, but I know Westerners tend to believe that Christianity is less gruesome than Islam; however, anyone who’s read the Bible beyond just the popular passages knows that’s absolute hokum. It’s fitting, then, that Zimmerman starts with Christianity, because so much of its history is absolutely glutted with blood and brutality. Not just what’s chronicled in their sacred text, but all the historical violence wreaked upon others in the name of furthering the faith: the Crusades, the witch burnings, the religious conversion at sword-point, and of course the many and varied tortures and murders committed by the Holy Inquisition during its roughly three hundred year reign of terror. Modern Christianity may be a kinder, gentler incarnation, but I think there is something about all of that murder and mayhem ingrained in our collective psyches, and that has surely had an effect on our appreciation for horror. Of course, the irony is that Christians these days will more often than not condemn the appreciation of fictional horror even as they downplay or whitewash their own religion’s abominable history of actual bloodshed and persecution. You gotta love the irony.

The cultural transition from religious to secular horror is embodied for Zimerman in William Hogarth’s famous print series The Four Stages of Cruelty. These pieces depict the evolution of viciousness in human beings, starting with school children tormenting animals and ending with a hanged man’s corpse being dissected by medical students. He notes here that, contrary to the popular opinion that constant exposure to fictional violence desensitizes people and makes them bloodthirsty and heartless, he himself is rather humbled by horror. It constantly reminds him of his own mortality, and is therefore an incitement to always be a good person. In that sense, the entire horror genre serves as a kind of memento mori for Zimerman, and by extrapolation, for many others as well. I think he’s definitely onto something there, as most of the real horror fans that I’ve met have been gentle and benevolent souls who wouldn’t hurt a fly . . . because, well, the fly might be one of us after all.

By contrast, Zimerman posits that most Americans actually go out of their way to avoid death, that they have an unhealthy relationship with it, making them ill-equipped to deal with their own mortality. I’m not so sure about this. Americans love their cinematic violence. They may not go whole hog with it like some of us, but bloody action films and thrillers remain quite popular, and anyway the horror genre itself has now moved into the mainstream. I do think that by and large other cultures may have a more sophisticated relationship with death than we do. Zimmerman does too, and his touchstone for this is Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, an annual celebration of the dead that, unlike its American analog of Halloween, is not about fear but rather respect for the dead. In Mexico, death is viewed not as something to be afraid of; it is instead a divine mystery that should inspire awe and reverence. I have to say, given the rising levels of violence taking place in our southern neighbor these days, this doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Nevertheless, it is something to be admired, I agree.

There are some fantastic highlights in Why Horror?—the interviews with directors George Romero and John Carpenter, the segment on J-Horror (which is actually rooted in Japanese kabuki and noh theater), an animated mini-history of the genre in cinema—but no part of the film lagged or failed to capture my full attention. In fact, my only real complaint is that, other than the J-Horror bit, it really didn’t spend much time on monsters or the supernatural side of the genre, both of which I prefer to Zimerman’s obvious slasher obsession. It does get into monsters a wee bit, including one of my all-time faves, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, and how that particular monster’s story came into being. An entirely plausible theory about monsters is put forth here—they are said to be a projection of our dark side (our shadow, if you will) in symbolic form, which is then usually destroyed, much to the relief and satisfaction of filmgoers. Well, some filmgoers anyway. Me? I like when the monster triumphs. 🙂

Grade: A-

Graham Masterton’s ‘Prey’ – A Review

This book had been sitting on my shelf for some time before I finally got around to it a couple weeks ago. Ironically, I had been thinking a lot about Lovecraft’s work lately, of which I’m a huge fan. I say ironically because I was not aware of this novel’s connections to Lovecraft—specifically his short story The Dreams in the Witch House—before I picked it up. If you haven’t read that story, I’d advise doing so before reading this novel; it isn’t essential, but it is nice to compare and contrast the novel against its inspiration. You can find it here if you’re interested. I consider it one of Lovecraft’s most successful stories, personally.

Prey follows David Williams (why do modern horror novel protagonists always have such generic names?) fresh from a separation with his wife and doing his best to eek a living for himself and his young son Danny as a handyman. At the start he agrees to take on a summer gig restoring and refreshing Fortyfoot House, an old Victorian estate on the Isle of Wight—which, if you don’t know, is just off the southern coast of England. So David takes little Danny and moves into Fortyfoot House, and almost immediately he starts hearing weird noises in the attic. He soon learns from the locals that a rat-like monster called Brown Jenkin is rumored to inhabit the house. This is no big revelation. There’s a quote from The Dreams in the Witch House about Brown Jenkin at the front of the book. We’re definitely in Lovecraft’s domain here, only Masterton has transposed the “witch house” to his own British turf rather than Lovecraft’s familiar setting of New England. Whereas the Lovecraft piece takes place in the fictional setting of Arkham, Massachusetts, Masterton places his story in the very real town of Bonchurch, near Ventnor.

When meddling locals start dying off, it seems like we’re in pretty standard haunted house territory for a good chunk of the novel, though Masterton’s writing is pretty engaging so the story never feels draggy during that initial setup. It is not without problems, which we’ll get to in short order, but by and large the first half of Prey is interesting if not exactly original. If you’re a fellow Lovecraft fan, there is also the anticipation of seeing how a writer like Graham Masterton, who is inclined towards the more gruesome and visceral side of horror (Lovecraft was all about solidly establishing atmosphere first and then mindfucking his readers hard and heavy) will handle beloved Lovecraftian icons like Brown Jenkin and Keziah Mason. When Keziah—spelled Kezia in the book—and Jenkin finally do show up in the flesh in the latter half of Prey, they definitely do not disappoint. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

Early on, Masterton also introduces a third character into the family dynamic at Fortyfoot House: a 19-year-old free spirit named Liz, whom David invites to stay for awhile since she has nowhere else to go and was planning to squat there anyway before she learned David and Danny were actually residing there for the summer. A freshly divorced 30-something, a cute teen girl with no attachments . . . I think you can see where this is going. Yep. But despite some pretty graphic descriptions of their sexual antics, it still isn’t half as creepy as the main male character’s completely extraneous romp in the woods with a 16-year-old in Simon Clark’s Darker. At least here there’s a plot-specific reason why Liz seduces David, even if it winds up being kinda gross. Anyway, this is a horror novel, and if you can’t handle a little freaky sex, you’re probably reading the wrong genre, seriously. Horror and freaky sex go together like whips and cherries . . . or something.

Besides, the book gets a whole lot more disturbing before the end, trust me. Think some of the darker elements of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and you probably won’t be far off the mark. And when Masterton’s mind is at full dark, he isn’t nearly as restrained as McCarthy. So there’s that.

But I digress. Whereas the first half of Prey feels like a decently written if rather standard haunted house novel, the second half shifts into something else entirely: something that involves time travel, kidnapped children (one of whom is quite a bit more than what she first appears to be) and the devil, who isn’t even the most powerful villain here—more like Evil Santa’s twisted little helper. There’s also an environmental message that was clearly more of an afterthought than the point of the story, which ultimately weakens whatever validity that message might’ve had. Overall, the final third of the novel, while ambitious and certainly disturbing, is a bit of a mess.

Above all, the book’s biggest problem is the main character himself, whose motivations often defy belief and leave one shaking their head a little too often. The most frustrating thing is that, every time it feels like David is about to get back on track, he goes and does something stupid again, putting not only himself but his little son in needless jeopardy once more. I’ll grant that if a story is intriguing and provocative enough, a dumb protagonist can be kinda fun. I mean, we’ve all gotten a thrill from yelling at that idiot in the stalker film who went upstairs to hide instead of running away from the house like they should’ve, haven’t we? I have anyway. Luckily for Masterton, David Williams is a lot like that—just when you think he’s finally come to his senses, he goes and does that dumb thing you knew he was going to do because that’s how the plot needs to play out, and you want to slap the crap out of him.

Still, by the end, despite all the nutty turns it’s taken, it all kinda sorta makes sense. And David may not be all that smart or noble as a character, but he does feel like an Everyman who is just trying to scrape by the best way he knows how, and who gets mixed up in something that is way beyond his ken. He’s not the protagonist I would’ve written, but he comes across as basically decent if lacking in imagination and perspective, and I know a lot of people like that myself, and even care about some of them. Ultimately what redeems Prey, however, is just the sheer madness and monstrosity of the world Masterton has created within. Whatever else he may have gotten wrong, he definitely got the horror right, which is all-important for this kind of book. I’ll tell you this: I will not soon forget the Brown Jenkin of Prey.

Grade: B-

Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ – A Review

ix-stephen-king-the-shiningThere are certain books that every true blue horror fan should read at least once: Dracula and Frankenstein, of course; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House; Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend all come easily to mind. I wouldn’t hesitate to include The Shining in that category as well. Last month horror specialty press Cemetery Dance even put out a special edition of the novel that includes a prologue and epilogue King wrote into the original manuscript but which publishers omitted from all previous editions. Unfortunately, I do not have that edition; the one I own is the one pictured to the left, which does have a sample of the novel’s sequel Doctor Sleep at the back.

If you’re not familiar with the book’s plot (which has seen not one but two filmed adaptations, including the definitive Stanley Kubrick movie—a horror classic in its own right—and a TV miniseries in the early nineties), then you, sir or madame, must have been living under that proverbial rock for the last forty years. Given the age of the novel, spoiler warnings are off the table. Just sayin’. Very briefly, the story’s about a haunted hotel set high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and the Torrance family who become its caretakers during the hotel’s off-season. As winter sets in, the hotel becomes more and more isolated by snowstorms, and soon the ghosts surface and begin to terrify the family of three, especially five year old Danny Torrance, whose special psychic abilities give the novel its name. It’s not a particularly original concept; however, there are some aspects that set it apart from your standard haunted house fare.

For one thing, the hotel was not built on desecrated ground . . . at least, not in the book. Kubrick actually changed this part (and several others, arguably for the worse in many cases) and used the desecrated burial ground trope, though it’s only mentioned in passing, really. Poltergeist, released two years later, used the same trope much more effectively, I think. In the book, though, it is simply a series of violent tragedies over the hotel’s long history that ultimately taints it and invests it with its spectral “life.”

For another thing, the black guy is still alive by the end, another thing Kubrick changed. It may seem like a minor point, but given the horror genre’s habit of killing off minorities—usually early in the story—I think it’s important to note that King subverted that genre standard way back in 1977, long before political correctness became a thing. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some problems with his handling of the black character. Dick Hallorann, the Overlook’s head chef, uses the ‘n’ word self-referentially and talks jive perhaps a little too often. Moreover, aside from Danny, he’s the other major character who has the shining, and he serves basically one purpose here: as Danny and Wendy’s savior, making him just this side of the Magic Negro. It’s a trope King milked for all it was worth in The Green Mile, but here he flirts with it. What ultimately redeems the Hallorann character, however, is the fact that King was clearly making a larger point with him. The chef becomes a sort of mentor to Danny, and his concern for the boy is rooted almost entirely in the psychic powers they share, as it allows him to instantly connect with little Danny in a deep way when he meets him. In other words, had it not been for Danny’s “shining” it is likely Hallorann wouldn’t have given the Torrances a second thought.

Now, Stephen King is known to not be a fan of the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. If one has never read the book, it may seem difficult to understand why. I mean, Kubrick is a directorial genius who made what has since been recognized as one of the greatest horror films of all time. But after rereading The Shining, I can see his side of things. I’m not saying I agree with him, only that as a writer myself, I can comprehend his frustration with the way Kubrick tampered with some of the best aspects of his story. The animated topiary animal shrubs are a good example. Though to be fair, those would’ve been difficult to pull off with the special effects technology available in 1980. Still, if anyone could’ve done it without making it look cheap, it would’ve been Stanley Kubrick. Instead he replaced them with the now-famous hedge maze. It’s an artistic choice I comprehend (the maze echoes the labyrinthine nature of the hotel itself, further echoed by the interlocked patterns of the carpet), but King has a point too. For one thing, Kubrick softens Jack a bit by having him merely dislocate Danny’s arm rather than break it as he does in the book. This is relevant, because Jack is the progeny of an abusive alcoholic father himself. In part, King’s novel is about whether young parents are destined to repeat their own parents’ failures. Ever the optimist, King has Jack nearly succeed in breaking the cycle . . . if not for that pesky haunted hotel that slyly seduces him back into his old destructive habits and ultimately drives him mad.

Well, King may be an optimist at heart, but he does seem to suggest that our psyches are fragile enough that we must always be on guard against the lures of the negative patterns that sometimes guide our lives. One gets the feeling from reading The Shining that King well understood how close we all come sometimes to the brink of self-directed ruin, and that is the real horror here. The conceit of the haunted hotel is merely the frosty coating on top of what’s really cooking beneath the surface. There’s a reason the concept behind the novel works so well: beyond the actual ghosts, this is, in fact, a masterful psychological study of a man who finds himself more and more isolated from his family and ultimately from himself. In one sense Jack is the Overlook: on the outside he’s a cool and attractive customer,  but underneath he’s a man haunted by his own history, constantly on the verge of exploding like the hotel’s faulty boiler.

There’s a real sense of desperation and grittiness in the book, the sign of a writer who knew intimately the fears of poverty and failure that drive Jack, who was not so far removed from them yet himself. King was still an up-and-coming author with a young family when he wrote The Shining, and its obvious he empathized with and understood his characters, a quality he invests in Jack Torrance. And that makes it all the more tragic when Jack finally loses it and turns against his wife and son.  I could say much more about this book and its place in the canon of horror fiction, how it is one of the more important works in bridging the gap between Old World and New World supernatural literature, for example. Perhaps I’ll save that for another time. I will leave you with this instead: The Shining is the perfect winter read for fans of the genre, and if you’ve never experienced it in any form but the Kubrick film, now is the time to pick it up.

Grade: A 

Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Hungry Moon’ – A Review

ix-ramsey-campbell-the-hungry-moonIt’s true I’ve gotten a little behind on my reviews lately, so I will try to remedy that from here on out. Which brings me to Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon. I know Campbell primarily as a short story writer, and in that field very few modern horror writers can touch him. In my review for the horror anthology Cutting Edge, I pointed out that my favorite story in the book was Campbell’s The Hands, where a freaky urban church is the source of the horror. Campbell definitely knows how to tap into the darker side of religion. That is amply demonstrated in The Hungry Moon.

The novel is set in a little British village called Moonwell, so named because it contains an ancient cave said to house a demonic being with some connection to the moon. Long ago local Druids managed to trap the creature in the cave and keep it there with magical rites performed on the same day every year, a tradition that has continued on to present day with nary a problem. Enter Godwin Mann, a young evangelical Christian from California, who has come to Moonwell to win their quaint little British pagan hearts over to his distinctly American brand of Christianity, and he does so by vowing to descend into the cave and confront once and for all whatever satanic presence is lurking down there. The problem is, the being in the cave has absolutely nothing to do with any Christian devils, but is rather something that descended to Earth from the stars many millennia ago, a monstrosity more akin to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones than to anything out of religious lore.

The book sets up Mann as a typical charismatic preacher who manages to whip the town into a religious frenzy, complete with book burning and purging of some of the more liberal elements of the town. That alone would be bad enough, but then Mann makes good on his promise and confronts the thing in the cave . . . which promptly possesses his body, escapes from its long-time prison and proceeds to take advantage of the powerful influence its evangelist host has already established over the townsfolk, mesmerizing and manipulating them for its own ends. By the time the handful of people with the good sense to steer clear of Godwin Mann’s cult realize that something is very, very wrong in Moonwell (I mean, besides the fact that an outsider has come in and turned nearly everyone into Bible-thumpers in no time flat), it’s pretty much too late. The village has been cut off from the outside world, and a permanent darkness has settled over it. With all electricity severed, the only source of light in town is now the Godwin Mann-thing, a sort of giant glowy spider with Mann’s face, and all sorts of weird-ass stuff starts coming out of the woodwork to boot.

One thing I hate with a passion is when horror authors simply substitute gross-out stuff for real horror. Luckily this is something Campbell masterfully steers clear of at every turn, going instead for the slow build-up that’s much more rewarding in the end. And as usual, Ramsey Campbell writes beautifully intricate and thoughtful sentences, which I happen to prefer over Stephen King’s short and choppy point-blank style (your mileage may vary). Campbell’s writing feels baroque and pregnant with dark possibility whereas King tends to just hit you over the head with everything, using his words like a blunt object, which, depending on the story, either works spectacularly or has a flattening effect on the writing, depriving it of much-needed nuance and emotional resonance.

The story also works as an allegory of the destructive power of religious fanaticism, with particular emphasis on the way true believers can be easily manipulated by anyone who wears the mask of a holy man and tells them what they want to hear. Campbell even manages to sprinkle the book with some well-timed humor, a difficult feat in a horror novel, especially one that deals with such a contentious topic. One scene where a couple of stand-up comic’s on-stage personas manifest as actual people in the backseat of a car was especially fun, managing to be both hilarious and creepy as all get-out at the same time. Another tricky issue here is how the author pits a stalwart English spiritual tradition against flashy Hollywood-style American evangelism, making it essentially a tale of conflicting national cultures that could easily have been offensive in the wrong hands. Personally, I’ve seen enough Pat Robertsons, Creflo Dollars and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers to know that Godwin Mann is actually pretty restrained as these guys go, and I’ve never been a fan of their type anyway. But it’s clear that Campbell has more in mind here than cheap shots at America. Hell, he even makes his main heroine a transplanted New Yorker just so you can be absolutely sure that this isn’t intended to be anti-Yank.

To be sure, the book is not without its flaws, the main one being that there are a lot of characters in it, and Campbell doesn’t do quite enough to keep them distinct from one another. This is particularly problematic in the early chapters, where I found myself more than once trying to sort out who was who. It does get easier as the book progresses and the various connections between the characters are slowly clarified, but they still could’ve done with more backstory, or just some general fleshing out of their personalities. The other big problem is the resolution, which is just a little too deus ex machina for my taste, not to mention that the way the monster is defeated is laughably absurd and far too wussified for such an awesome antagonist. There are also some subplots that go nowhere, including one in which the creature is planning to gain possession of nuclear weapons stored in a bunker just outside of Moonwell. Too bad this ultimately became little more than a disappointing afterthought. The idea of a Lovecraftian monster taking control of nuclear weapons is a good one.

But even with these problems, The Hungry Moon is measured, cunning and scary enough to entertain most fans of the genre, I think, particularly those who gravitate toward the Lovecraft school of horror literature. It’s not the most original of ideas perhaps, but there’s enough style and Campbellian strangeness here to make for a worthwhile read for hardcore horror buffs and especially Campbell fans.

Grade: B

‘The Book of Strange New Things’ – A Review

IX-michel-faber-the-book-of-strange-new-thingsTruth be told, I’ve actually read several books in between my last review and this one, but somehow a review just never gelled for those other books. First, there was Charles Grant’s Symphony, the first in a tetralogy in which one book each is dedicated to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. While I have a weird little anecdote about this novel’s cover design in relation to a dream I had in high school (several years before the book was published), I’ll spare you that and just say that the first volume in the series was a massive letdown, and I likely won’t be reading the rest of them. I have a general rule against reviewing anything that I would rate less than a C- because I hate being mean to writers, knowing as I do exactly how hard it is to write a novel—any novel—much less a good one. And let’s say this book just missed the mark of being review-worthy.

Then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s colossal ode to Africa The Poisonwood Bible, about the mostly all-female Price clan, headed by the firebrand Southern preacher Nathan Price, and their adventures as missionaries in the Belgian Congo against the backdrop of the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s. Here I had the opposite problem: the book was certainly worthy of a review, but I felt that any legitimate criticisms that could be leveled at it would require someone with a far more extensive and nuanced understanding of African history and culture than I happen to possess. Next I tackled the Seventh Annual Edition of Gardner Dozois’ highly regarded anthology series The Year’s Best Science Fiction. The failure here for me was in the prodigious diversity of ideas which threatened to overwhelm me (a common issue I have with good science fiction anthologies), and I will need to read it again to properly review it. Finally, I worked William Styron’s short but exemplary meditation on his own clinical depression, Darkness Visible, into my reading schedule, a text that feels holy to those of us who have suffered from the same affliction at some point in our lives, and therefore to review it was, for me, something akin to sacrilege.

Little did I know, reading all of these books was essentially laying the groundwork for reviewing a novel more in my critical wheelhouse: The Book of Strange New Things by Dutch/British author Michel Faber, a book that shares some territory with Mary Doria Russell’s multi-award-winning The Sparrow, in that both are about an idealistic Christian missionary traveling to an alien world to bring the Gospel to the natives, only to face a series of unexpected challenges upon arrival. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Whereas The Sparrow‘s central protagonist is a conservative Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico, that of The Book of Strange New Things is a liberal Protestant minister from Britain. And whereas Russell’s novel tackles the politics of sex and the emotional impact of rape, Faber’s is at heart a love story. And now I promise to stop with the comparisons and just focus on the volume credited in the headline.

From the outset Faber takes pains to establish the depth and vigor of the relationship between Peter and Beatrice Leigh, which is a good thing because he wastes little time in getting the pastor off to the planet Oasis, where USIC (the acronym is never explained, adding to the mega-corp’s highly mysterious nature throughout the story) has established a . . . colony? Base? Neither of these feel quite accurate in describing the setup USIC has created on the planet, where a handful of handpicked humans toil away in the hardscrabble environment of a world that is, impossibly, both wet and dry at the same time, incredibly humid and yet almost desert-like in its sparsity of life and geological features. A world where the nigh incessant rain comes down in rhythmic spirals. The one intelligent species here are humanoid in form, but their faces are maddeningly unfamiliar, devoid of anything even remotely face-like.

When Peter arrives, he finds several facets of this new place both unsettling and fascinating. For one thing, the USIC habitat is engineered to keep its workers satisfied and incurious about everything outside of their jobs, including what’s going on back on Earth. Or rather, especially what’s going on back on Earth. This is problematic for Peter, who initially tries to keep his promise to communicate regularly with Bea via the Shoot (basically an interplanetary email device that allows for near instantaneous communication between Earth and Oasis) but soon his work with the all too amenable Oasans—which includes mastering their bizarre, nearly impervious form of speech and helping them build a proper church in their otherwise insular and conformist community—causes him to slack off on his transmissions. Naturally, being millions of miles away both physically and mentally, Peter begins to grow apart from his wife, who is dealing with some major issues of her own back home, where civilization has fallen into complete chaos as environmental disasters caused by severe climate change have begun to take their toll. But these problems become almost abstract to Peter as he endeavors to understand what motivates the Oasans, not to mention what happened to his predecessor, the original pastor who inspired the natives to take up Christianity so passionately, and who went missing before Peter’s arrival.

Even as Peter and Bea grow apart, Peter finds himself growing closer to Grainger, the colony’s pharmacist, who is battling depression and guilt and wants to go home to visit her estranged father. Soon he develops feelings for her that further threaten his marriage, while on the tumultuous Earth, Bea has seemingly lost her faith in God. Will Peter and Bea’s love survive these setbacks? Could any marriage endure these immense psychic and spatial distances, or these ever-multiplying forms and levels of alienation? This is the central question the book asks, and it is largely left to the reader whether the question is satisfactorily answered or not. Meanwhile, there is a pastoral quality to The Book of Strange New Things, an ease and lightness in its unfolding which expertly belies the gloom gathering just off the horizon. Like the Oasans’ ovoid-bricked homes and the sterile USIC compound, the story itself is meticulously constructed to be nonthreatening, or rather to appear so. But danger lurks in unexpected places, like those challenges to love and faith that often strike us obliquely, out of the blue.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the novel is its restraint. Faber could easily have taken this in a dozen more jarring, gruesome or sensational directions. He could have made it far more confrontational to the those who put their faith in God—or science for that matter—to save us from ourselves. Instead, what he gives us is a soft sell of the very things he seems to castigate, sort of an anti-satire, a thing that comes across ultimately as fresh and original even as it polishes its familiar tropes to a glittering shine, and that is borderline miraculous. He even leaves off in a way that invites a sequel, but if one never materializes the novel will remain nothing less than a holistic and accomplished piece, a fully realized work of science fiction that should be read widely.

Grade: A

‘Dark Forces’ – A Review

IX-kirby-mccauley-dark-forcesIn the late 70s editor Kirby McCauley solicited every writer in the field he could think of for a new short horror fiction anthology he was putting together. Dark Forces was the result. When I read this book for the first time back in 1990 (a full ten years after its initial publication), I put little X’s by the stories I really enjoyed. Twelve tales wound up with these marks, a little over half of the twenty-three pieces included in this massive anthology. Now, I know what you’re thinking: twenty-three stories doesn’t sound that massive. Yes, but what other horror anthology includes Stephen King’s novella The Mist, which weighs in at 130 pages in the Signet paperback just by itself? That’s a bit over one-fifth of this 538 page tome, excluding the introductory pages.

And speaking of The Mist, for some reason it failed to get an X from me, which in retrospect seems insane. It has since become one of my favorite Stephen King stories, owing not just to the cool monsters but also to its pitch-perfect study of the fractioning and breakdown of humanity when crammed together in a pressure cooker environment. This is the kind of story King really does best. In a way, it is an extension of his early work like The Shining and Cujo. Those books deal with young families trapped at a particular location while dealing with a looming threat—the author builds on that concept here and ups the stakes considerably. Another thing I’ve always loved about this story is that it ends quite ambiguously, a rarity for King, who tends toward upbeat endings. Not here. Indeed, the 2007 Frank Darabont film based on this story ended on an even bleaker note, and I still think it’s one of the best films based on King’s horror work. Anyway, I can only assume that I was so flabbergasted and wearied after reading the Dark Forces opener that I just plum forgot to mark it, though more likely I saved the longest story for last . . . and forgot to mark it. Either way, it is a grievous error that has since been corrected. I mean, I do have my pride.

In fact, after my recent re-read, most of the stories that didn’t get an X in 1990 got one this time around, and the entire volume has been upgraded in my esteem. This stands in direct contrast to the Cutting Edge anthology, which hasn’t aged quite as well. I suspect that I simply wasn’t mature enough to appreciate these stories when I read them as a teenager. Take, for example, The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk. Initially I rejected it as a throwback to the traditional ghost story with little to justify it as a modern incarnation. Moreover, I may have simply soured at the notion of reading the fiction of a well-known conservative philosopher, even if thoughtful and well-written, but such is the thinking of an adolescent. This piece is essentially a blatant Christian ghost story, but a beautifully crafted one. A person could argue that there are uncomfortable elements of colonial Africa here which may strike some readers as racist, but I feel the story artfully transcends this simplistic assessment. And whether you agree with his politics or not (I don’t), Kirk remains a fascinating figure, an Old Guard conservative from an era when conservatives were still pretty classy.

 Another story that I initially did not like but has since become one of my favorites in the collection is The Bingo Master by Joyce Carol Oates. Many would be hard-pressed to call this a horror story at all. No one dies, no monsters or psychopaths lurk in the shadows, nothing supernatural or particularly gruesome happens, though there is an act of violence in it. And yet, by the end we experience the full force of the humiliation and devastation wrought against the tale’s witty but naive middle-aged narrator, Rose Mallow Odom, who stands as one of the most well-drawn characters of any short story I’ve ever read. It is truly incredible how much personality and detail Oates packs into this piece, and because of that the finale has every bit of the force of a death or a rape. It is, in short, exactly the kind of story a teenage horror fan with a hunger for strange beings and bloodletting would shuck off as not worthy of his time. The more fool him!

Some things, however, have not changed. My favorite piece in this collection, then as now, is Robert Aickman’s Mark Ingestre: A Customer’s Tale. Although I was only passingly familiar with the Sweeney Todd legend when I first read this piece, I knew there was something special here. And yet, again, there are no monsters or murders, though there is plenty of menace and enough claustrophobic atmosphere to choke Ann Radcliffe. What really sets this story apart, however, is the deftly handled sexual weirdness. It is one of the most overtly erotic of Aickman’s stories—not to mention one of his last before his death in 1981—and it stands as a surprisingly straight-from-the-shoulder (for Aickman anyway) story. Anyway, I love these sorts of expansions on established fictive universes.

And, of course, Ramsey Campbell’s contribution, The Brood, is likewise one of the strongest pieces here. There’s something almost Lynchian about this fable of a London-based veterinarian who finds himself drawn, with the intentions of rescue, as any good animal lover would, to the distressed mewling of some infant critters in the abandoned building next door to his apartment, only to discover that they aren’t quite what he expected. Other highlights include Edward Bryant’s Dark Angel, which explores the concept of the voodoo doll in a rather shocking way, Clifford D. Simak’s The Whistling Well, where a writer camping on an abandoned Western settlement encounters something ancient and terrifying, Robert Bloch’s The Night Before Christmas, the tale of a madman’s jealousy over his wife’s infidelity with one of Bloch’s trademark punch-in-the-gut endings (complete with pun), and Lisa Tuttle’s Where the Stones Grow, proof positive that a skilled writer can make anything horrific, even rocks.

Yet even the stories I didn’t care for—Charles L. Grant’s A Garden of Blackred Roses feels  a little disjointed and half-baked, despite a strong concept which could easily have been expanded into a novel, and in Where There’s a Will, the father-son team of Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson give us their take on the premature burial theme with a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shyamalan’s more middling efforts—still feel like vital inclusions here, perhaps lifted up by the sheer quality of the volume’s other material. Both of these stories were interesting experiments that didn’t quite work for me, but I certainly don’t have any regrets about having read them.

As a sampling of the horror field at a particular time in history, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying volume than this one. McCauley certainly knew good fiction when he read it. And there’s not a single vampire story in the bunch. Go figure. There’s even a short Edward Gorey cartoon and a darkly humorous Gahan Wilson entry, and oddly, neither feel out of place here. Really, all of these pieces are so fundamentally different from the others that the book stands as a pretty fine survey of the breadth of quality horror fiction being crafted in the late 70s and early 80s. As a teenager, I had specific expectations on what I wanted from my spooky stories. As a middle-aged man I am open to anything that can chill me, disturb me or just generally creep me out, which means I am in a much better position to appreciate this collection for what it truly is: an excellent reflection of all the shapes, sizes and patterns that horror can come in. Trust me on this: if you’re in the market for a single 80s-era horror anthology, this is the one to get.

Grade: A