‘Chiral Mad’ – A Review

I really love horror anthologies. I mean, I love story collections by single authors too, but there’s nothing quite like reading an anthology and discovering talented writers you’ve never heard of before, or writers you might have heard about but weren’t familiar with their work. I especially love these sorts of themed anthologies, particularly when the theme is interpreted pretty broadly, as it is in Chiral Mad, Michael Bailey’s anthology of (mostly) psychological horror stories. So I had high expectations for this. Perhaps too high.

As the title suggests, the theme of the book is chirality, which refers to a pair of objects, chemical compounds, etc. which are asymmetrical in themselves but mirror images of each other (e.g. hands). The tension in these twenty-eight stories comes from the perversion or corruption of that mirror image. Hence, beneath the charming and perfect facade presented to the public either by the main character themselves or by a loved one, is their dark side, which is often their true nature.

Among the most conceptually interesting pieces in the collection are the ones that deal with children and childhood memories. In Some Pictures in an Album by Gary McMahon, the narrator describes each of the titular photos of himself in detail as he pages through the album, slowly revealing a nightmarish childhood. And in Monica J. O’Rourke’s powerful and depressing Five Adjectives, a story partially structured like an elementary classroom assignment, the young narrator describes a pleasantly idealized version of her father, who in reality is far from ideal. One of my favorite stories in the book, Christian A. Larsen’s Mirror Moments, also concerns a child. In this case the young boy is saved from certain death by a dark angel, but the price for his salvation may be too steep. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that seriously begs to be adapted into a novel. I’m dying (no pun intended) to know how this all plays out.

In terms of sheer horror, the best pieces here are Pat R. Steiner’s The Shoe Tree, a suburban serial killer tale in which the author does a pretty solid job of misdirecting the reader until the very end, Julia Stipes’s Not the Child, wherein the pregnant protagonist can see weird little fairy beings that take human souls and must protect her unborn baby from one of the creepy critters, and arguably the most disturbing story in this collection, Patrick Lacey’s Send Your End, about a strangely compelling site on the dark web where people film their suicides live.

I also dig the sort of existential horror presented in stories like R. B. Payne’s Cubicle Farm, where a young man seems to be completely incapable of leaving his horrible job at a debt collection agency, and John Michael Kelley’s The Persistence of Vision, where an assortment of objects in the attic begin to take on some rather menacing properties. For sheer quality of writing alone, another of my favorite pieces here was Gary A. Braunbeck’s Need, which amply contrasts a crabby middle class conservative’s jaundiced view of his much poorer neighbors across the street with the terrible plight of one of those neighbors, a young mother pushed by circumstances to the ultimate act of desperation. This is the kind of subtle, insightful humanist story we really need more of in the Age of Trump. And the intense body horror of Jack Ketchum’s Amid the Walking Wounded, where a man with a bloody nose that won’t quit starts to see ghosts in his hospital room, is pretty solid as the penultimate piece in this collection.

That being said, while the book doesn’t contain any truly bad stories, a few too many of them were mediocre for me to recommend this as a must have for fans of these types of anthologies. Sometimes the problem is that the writer doesn’t quite know what tone he or she is going for, or they try to juggle too much. For example, A Flawed Fantasy by Jeff Strand and Inevitable by Meghan Arcuri nicely straddle the line between humor and horror, though in the end neither was quite as satisfying as they should’ve been. While the writing itself is consistently above par, the way the stories play out is sometimes confusing, such as in Gene O’Neill’s The White Quetzal, Erik T. Johnson’s Apologies and Barry J. Kaplan’s Underwater. I suppose that sort of confusion is inevitable in a collection of psychological horror pieces, where frequently nothing is quite as it seems. For some readers that may enhance their experience. If so, then fantastic. I might not quibble as much with it in a novel, where the author has room to play with that confusion before resolving the story in a satisfactory way, but for me a short story is best when it gets in, makes its point and gets out. Too much larking about without a meaty twist or a solid resolution tends to leave me cold. Some writers, like Robert Aickman, can pull that off perfectly, but he was a true master. Very few writers could do what Aickman did and get away with it.

I will point out that none of the authors in this collection, and presumably its sequels, were paid. This was strictly a volunteer effort, and the profits from it all go to benefiting a Down syndrome charity, certainly a worthy cause and one of the reasons I bought the book. I’m still debating whether I want to shell out the cash though for Chiral Mad 2 or Chiral Mad 3. Maybe eventually, but not for awhile.

Grade: B

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Hey, Hollywood, Take a Cue from the Success of ‘It’ and Make These Books Into Movies Already

So, the film version of one of Stephen King’s best novels (in my humble opinion), It, just became the highest grossing horror film ever, surpassing The Exorcist. Why is that? It might be easy to chalk it up to King’s popularity, but given how badly The Dark Tower, another film based on a successful King book (actually a series of books), fared over the summer, it’s clearly more than that. Of course, there’s unarguably a phenomenal difference in quality between those two films, and that certainly made a difference. But I think it’s more than that. I think the concept of coming-of-age stories combined with horror often work so well because there is just something innately horrific about blossoming adolescence, this strange transformation from child to adult, all the weird new feelings and awkwardness, and the sense of horrible unfairness that comes from a growing awareness of oneself and one’s place in the world while you are still legally powerless to do much of anything about it. It capitalized on that perfectly by pitting 12-year-old kids who don’t fit in at school and who are dealing with their own problems at home against a shape-shifting monster that only they can see.

If you think about the film that It replaced in the top spot, The Exorcist, you should quickly realize that it actually dealt with the same theme of budding pubescence being that time of life when we are most susceptible to evil. But there was only one child in that story. Here you have seven, each of them a sort of archetype of uncouth adolescence. Bill Denbrough is the quiet kid still processing the tragic loss of his beloved younger sibling; Ben Hanscomb is the sensitive fat kid; Richie Tozier is the smart-ass who covers his insecurity with constant jokes; Mike Hanlon is the rare black kid in a predominantly white town; Eddie Kaspbrak is the kid whose Smother has made him neurotic; Stanley Uris is the brilliant Jewish nerd; and Bevery Marsh, the sole female in the group, is the abused kid. Most of us can find ourselves in there somewhere, if not in just one character then in a combination of them. (I think I’m equal parts Stan, Ben and Mike, with a wee smidge of Bev.)

Anyway, the formula of tweens and young teen(s) confronting the supernatural clearly speaks to all of us on some level. When done well, these tend to be among the strongest horror cinema: The Sixth Sense, Let the Right One In (and its American remake Let Me In), The Lost Boys. When done superbly, they are unforgettable. It has now attained that status. Will the sequel live up to the first film? With the same director and production team behind it, I suspect it’ll be pretty good but will ultimately not achieve the same degree of critical acclaim. Not unless it uses plenty of flashbacks. While the scariness of Pennywise was certainly important,  what ultimately made It so successful was the kids. They were well-written characters, and the young actors playing them had real chemistry.

And that’s why Hollywood needs to strike while the iron is hot and put these other properties that use basically the same formula into production. And which properties are those, you’re wondering? I mean the ones I wrote about in this article from 2013, which has never been more timely. To varying degrees, they all pretty well fit this theme:

Five Horror & Dark Fantasy Novels That Need to Be Movies Now

In addition, I will add one more.

Neverland – Douglas Clegg

The kids here are a bit younger than It‘s protagonists, but they still are left largely to themselves to deal with the growing evil on the island where their extended family vacations every summer. This is my all-time favorite of Clegg’s novels. The Southern Gothic elements combined with kids confronting a Lovecraftian horror is a match made in heaven. Or hell. Either one. The monster, largely unseen in the book, allows more for the imagination than Pennywise (and therefore will save on special effects budget), meaning there’s a lot more focus on the kids and the growing unease we experience as we watch them become slowly corrupted by whatever cosmic entity resides on Gull Island. Oh, and there are ghosts too.

With its beautiful coastal island setting and quirky Southern characters, this is a horror novel begging to be put onto film. Besides, it’s high time Hollywood showed some love for one of the best American horror writers around, a man just as hardworking and prolific as King, and for my money anyway, often a stronger writer. Even with his less successful works, Clegg knows how to sell his characters. But this is definitely one of Clegg’s best books, and it really ought to be a movie.

So, come on, Hollywood. Get on these pronto, but only if you want to make money. 😉

Stephen Graham Jones’s ‘Mapping the Interior’ – A Review

I recently came into a little bit of money, and to celebrate, I did something I rarely do: I bought some new books from Amazon. Usually I settle for the used books I can pick up here and there. Not this time. This time I picked up several books from my ever-growing Must Read list, including this novella from Stephen Graham Jones, an author of Blackfeet ancestry. This was my introduction to his work, and it certainly made me want to read more by Jones.

Mapping the Interior is a novella narrated by a poor Native American boy who suddenly finds himself contending with the ghost of his own father, the victim of a mysterious drowning many years before the story takes place. Junior, as he is known to his family, lives with his widowed mother and epileptic little brother Dino (or Deener, as he endearingly calls him)—his mother is somewhat distant, having never fully recovered from her husband’s death, and Junior feels obligated to look after his brother, who is often the subject of bullying because of his illness, shyness and learning impairment. Now living off the reservation thanks largely to his father’s death, Junior and his family deal with the poverty and loneliness of their new life, as well as their growing disconnection from their Native heritage. When Junior’s father’s ghost begins to appear to him at their new residence during his sleepwalking episodes, he must figure out whether this is a blessing or a curse.

What I most love about this story is how authentic the narrator’s voice is. I don’t just mean that he perfectly captures the spirit (no pun intended) of a modern Native American youth, although he does do that. I mean that he comes across as a real kid, with the cadences of his thought patterns feeling genuine, stripped of the pretentiousness of adulthood, oddly unique without being forced. Anyone who regularly reads this blog will know that one of my major pet peeves in genre fiction is when child characters are not fully developed, and when they are clearly only there to serve the plot. That’s generally less of an issue when the child character is the narrator, so Jones did have a slight advantage there, but still, this is the kind of child character I adore: he is innocent and precocious, noble and self-involved all at the same time. He is, in other words, a real human child, full of the complexities and contradictions that all children have. Which makes his struggle to understand himself and his place in the world all too familiar.

Jones’s  story doesn’t delve too far into the arcane aspects of Native American history and tradition, which is perfectly in keeping with the fact that Junior is largely disengaged from and oblivious to his own culture. While he is clearly impressed with his father’s fancy dancer costume and accoutrements, he is also understandably intimidated and even frightened by them, especially as he begins to recognize that his father may not necessarily have brought himself back from death for benevolent reasons.

Mapping the Interior is a book that dissects and demystifies the myth of the always patient, sympathetic and unselfish Native without disparaging the culture as a whole, which only a Native writer could probably pull off. Moreover, it’s a truly creepy piece of writing, which makes Stephen Graham Jones a vital and unique voice in the horror fiction community. At $8.00 a pop for a new copy on Amazon, this may seem a bit high for a 112-page novella, but trust me, this is quality publication. The cover bears a beautiful illustration by Greg Ruth, and its texture is wonderfully velvety to the touch, such that I have spent countless minutes simply running my fingertips over it and marveling at its softness. If you’re at all a fan of actual hard-copy books, this is one worth having in your personal library, and worth reading, again and again.

Grade: A

‘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