Tag Archives: dark fantasy

‘Nightmare Carnival’ – A Review

Themed horror anthologies are a dime a dozen. Good ones are a little harder to come by, but one can usually count on editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow to deliver a decent if not always standout anthology. In this case, however, she nails it to the fucking wall. Circuses, fairs and carnivals are certainly fertile territory for horror writers to explore, but the danger of falling into cliched territory here is always lurking somewhere nearby like a drug-addled, urine-soaked clown skulking in the shadows, just waiting to snatch some unsuspecting kiddie off the midway and subject it to horrible acts of depravity . . . like exposing the poor thing to clown “comedy.”

Nightmare Carnival is not the only such anthology to tackle this concept—just in the last few years we’ve also gotten Dark Carnival edited by Jolene Haley, et al, the Amazon-published The Midnight Carnival: One Night Only, the dark urban fantasy collection Carniepunk, John Ledger’s hilariously named horror-humor mashup clownthology series Floppy Shoes Apocalypse (three books and counting), the F. Paul Wilson-curated Freak Show, the massive, multi-volume Carnival of Fear anthology, and probably several others I’m unaware of. For my money though this is one you need to read. Wilson’s Freak Show might give it a run for its money in terms of quality, but it’s less a true anthology than an exquisite corpse-style novel written by various authors, so I’m only half counting it here.

Datlow has been in the short story editing business for decades, and her instincts rarely go askew. She doesn’t just pick out fiction from the hot horror writers of the day, though this particular collection reads like a who’s who of au current dark fiction masters: Stephen Graham Jones, Nick Mamatas, Genevieve Valentine, Nathan Ballingrud, Jeffrey Ford and Livia Llewellyn are all in here. With that level of talent you know you’re not going to get another half-baked monster clown story, and there’s nary a one in the bunch. I’m not saying there aren’t some bad clowns here, but they aren’t Pennywise rehashed, thank fuck. Nothing against Pennywise, mind you, but he’s been done to death, no pun intended.

What you do get is a fairly nice mix of stories ranging from noirish stuff (mostly) rooted in reality (the collection’s bookend stories Scapegoats by N. Lee Wood and Screaming Elk, MT by Laird Barron) to the bleakest of existential surrealism (Glen Hirschberg’s A Small Part in the Pantomime, Robert Shearman’s The Popping Fields and Terry Dowling’s Corpse Rose), and everything in between.  Few of these stories go where you expect them to go, which is exactly what you want in a collection like this.

As is generally the case with Datlow’s collections, almost every story in this book is worth reading at least once, and several demand a reread. Priya Sharma’s The Firebrand and A.C. Wise’s And the Carnival Leaves Town are very dark mystery stories with a supernatural twist. Wise’s story in particular, about a detective investigating a family that goes missing after the carnival has moved on, is especially good and still gives me chills when I think about it. I’ll rate it the second-best story in the anthology, and that’s saying a lot. Shearman’s The Popping Fields is one of the most haunting pieces in this collection, a morose tale of a balloon animal guy slowly losing touch with reality as he grows older. Undoubtedly, though, the star of this collection is Nathan Ballingrud’s Skullpocket, which reads like Tim Burton filtered through George Romero and is absolutely unforgettable. I read this story online before I bought this book and it was that which prompted me to buy it, as I figured it wouldn’t be there forever and I wanted to read it again. And again. Hell, it might just become a Halloween tradition at my house. Just sayin’.

Moving on, Genevieve Valentine’s The Lion Cage, about a pair of mountain lions that are a little off somehow, feels almost like a throwback to early twentieth century fiction in this vein in that most of the horror is implied rather than spoken, but the story is all the stronger for that. The Hirschberg story also struck just the right tone for me, and clearly owes a debt to Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, in the best of ways. Jeffrey Ford’s fun and audacious Hibbler’s Minions serves up a nice dose of humor with its horror, delving into the hitherto unexplored Lovecraftian implications of a flea circus. The Darkest Part by Stephen Graham Jones,  about young men who decide to torture and murder an innocent clown as revenge for some horrific childhood experiences at the hands of another, er, less innocent clown was the grittiest (and bloodiest) story in the anthology but, as one expects from Jones, is at once thoroughly disturbing and entertaining.

In fact, only two stories in Nightmare Carnival fell short for me. Livia Llewellyn’s The Mysteries is just a wee bit too abstract for its own good, though it’s beautifully written and has some nice subtle nods to Clive Barker. I will be reading it again to see if I missed anything, because I feel I did. The other less than stellar entry here was Nick Mamatas’s Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip, about the consequences of a foreign wrestler taking on a gigantic redneck in the Jim Crow-era South. The story again was well-written but the ending left me unsatisfied, and the whole thing was a bit short on the horror, more of a somber human interest piece than anything. Still worth reading. Everything else in this book was just insanely good and more than made up for the moderate imperfections in those two stories. I’ll definitely read the entire collection again at some point.

Grade: A

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Gemma Files’ ‘Experimental Film’ – A Review

Many and many a year ago I read Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images. At least, I think I did. I remember owning a copy of the paperback published in 1990, the one with the little window cut into the cover through which you can see the main character’s (unconvincingly) frightened visage. For some reason those covers with windows were popular in the 90s. Anyway, I had it for awhile—bought it new, in fact. So I must’ve read it, right? The thing is, I can’t remember a damn thing about it other than that it had something to do with a secret horror film from the Golden Age of cinema. To be honest, I may or may not have finished it. My defense is that, as a teen I really wasn’t ready for the kind of veddy veddy British horror that Ramsey Campbell specializes in. I’ve since become a massive Campbell fan, incidentally.

That brings us to Experimental Film by Canadian author Gemma Files, which tackles something quite similar. I am a regular listener of the This Is Horror podcast hosted by Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella, and on the strength of Files’ interview I purchased this book. I do not regret it. Not one single little bit.

The story follows Lois Cairns, a semi-famous Toronto-based film critic specializing in indie and experimental films (hence the title) who discovers via local filmmaker Wrob Barney’s pretentious surrealist project Untitled 13—a sort of film collage—snippets from an unknown director’s silent-era short which appears to depict a cruel and little-known Wendish demigod called Lady Midday. Seeing the incredible potential in bringing to light a lost female filmmaker, the otherwise frazzled and burned out Lois suddenly finds new purpose and begins to dig into the history of what turns out to be an entire cache of films featuring the same frightening character. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that said director, one Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, disappeared from a moving train before making a name for herself, and her cache of films was discovered half-buried in the woods somewhere north of Toronto. Clearly someone wanted them forgotten.

Lois recruits Safie Hewson, a promising student from her days as a teacher at a now-defunct film school, to help her produce a documentary about Whitcomb and her films, and that’s when things really start to go sideways. As it so happens, Lois and Whitcomb have much in common, right down to both of them having special-needs sons who are socially dysfunctional but nonetheless remarkably individualistic and creative. Lois’s child, Clark, is autistic, communicating with the world around him through TV commercial catchphrases and other bits and bobs of language picked up from his exposure to media. Lois too, as with Whitcomb herself, is someone who doesn’t quite jibe with society. These connections prove to be more than just coincidental as Lois’s growing obsession with Iris Whitcomb and, by extension, Whitcomb’s own obsession, Lady Midday, pull her and her family into darker and darker psychological and spiritual territory.

Lois Cairns is a barely disguised analog of the book’s author, and that is, in fact, it’s greatest strength. There’s a reason why ‘write what you know’ has become a well-worn standard of authorial advice—it lends the story verisimilitude, and a writer often feels more confident when she knows what she’s talking about, and that often translates to a bolder voice and more interesting story choices. Files utilizes her immense knowledge of film and art history and the local film scene in and around Toronto to great effect. But lest you think the story gets carried away with the almost clinical observations of Lois’s chosen field, Files emotionally anchors the story with Lois’s chronic struggle with self-doubt and  her painfully acute observations on the joys, fears and frustrations of being a parent to an autistic child. These aspects alone are a sturdy framework for drama and mystery of literary caliber; that they are in fact the backdrop to a horror novel with a fascinating and frighteningly original villain that’s somewhere between cosmic Lovecraftian monster and exotic folkloric deity is damn near miraculous.

Gemma Files is a true spiritual successor to Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, masters at creating brilliant protagonists who attempt to hide from the horror of reality by cloaking it in rationality and intellectualism, only to have their conceits ripped apart in the end. For my money, this is horror at its best. Certain popular horror authors choose to gear their fiction more to the Everyman, and there’s certainly no shame in that, but I tend to get more scares from the work of writers like Gemma Files, who understands what it’s like to be a hyper-aware creative type in a world full of people who don’t get you. That’s dreadful enough on its own, but when you throw in something otherworldly on top of that, well, that’s what I call a horror novel.

Grade: A+

John McIlveen’s ‘Hannahwhere’ – A Review

The story begins with the brutal murder of a young mother by her abusive drug-addicted boyfriend, Travis, as her seven-year-old twin daughters, Anna and Hannah Amiel-Janssen, watch in helpless terror. When Travis flees the scene with Anna in tow, we know we’re in for a harrowing ride. Two years later, Hannah, the other twin, is discovered nearly comatose behind a dumpster half way across the country. Travis has since been captured and is serving out his sentence for the murder of the girls’ mom, but Anna is still missing. Hannah’s case is handed over to social worker Debbie Gillan, who just happens to be dealing with some bad shit of her own as long-repressed memories of abuse are beginning to surface.

As I’ve said before, one of my major pet peeves in fiction is when an author writes kid characters poorly. Dean Koontz is notorious for this, or at least he used to be. Frankly, I haven’t read any Koontz since probably my mid-twenties. Perhaps I should remedy that. So, yeah, terribly written child characters drive me up the wall. Kids are people too, and they deserve the same level of development and attention to detail as adult characters. Luckily for McIlveen, he nails it, and that’s all-important for a book like this, where unraveling the mystery surrounding the young twins is the hook. Of course, given that he is the father of five daughters himself (and what do you wanna bet a couple of those are twins?), he really had no excuse to get it wrong there. Well, he didn’t. Hannah and Anna are not merely foils for Debbie; they’re well-drawn characters in their own right: smart, charming and talented. Debbie too is wholly likeable, though not without her flaws. That’s important.

In fact, if McIlveen had done nothing else with this story but explore the psychology and history of these three protagonists, it would’ve been a solid if not particularly extraordinary novel. But he also invests all three of them with supernatural powers of a rather unique sort. At the risk of revealing too much, I will simply say that the book’s title is not merely symbolic. Hannahwhere is an actual place in this story, and its origins and connection to the twins is fascinating. If I have a complaint here, it is only that I would love to have spent more time in Hannahwhere, to see it fleshed out a bit more. I could absolutely see someone like Peter Straub giving the place the time and attention it deserves, delving more into the intricacies of its flora and fauna, weather patterns, and what-have-you. Even so, the story is pretty tightly paced and that will appeal to most readers, so I can’t complain too too loudly about this.

The main thing to understand going into this is that we just can’t help but empathize with these people, which is a blessing, but it’s also a curse, as it makes the conclusion all the more devastating. Ordinarily I prefer my fiction to have some stylistic flourishes, to play with language and ideas, even at the risk of falling into a bit of abstraction. The last book I reviewed, Paul Meloy’s The Night Clock, was just such a book. But it was perhaps just a little too abstract, and to be sure, few of the characters were very likeable. Hannahwhere is nearly it’s spiritual opposite, with fairly straightforward prose stripped of all pretensions, put entirely in the service of its story. And here I was grateful for that, as it provides the narrative with a deceptively simple and sweet allure that is all the more unnerving for its dark subject matter and that walloping gut-punch of a finale that well and truly hurt. Exactly as it should have. Mr. McIlveen earned himself a new fan with this one for sure.

Grade: A

Paul Meloy’s ‘The Night Clock’ – A Review

Describing the plot of Paul Meloy’s debut novel The Night Clock in a few sentences is damn near impossible, but I’ll give it a shot. So, basically, there are a group of individuals scattered across the earth who have certain powers (all of their powers differ from each other) who together make up the titular timepiece. It’s not a literal clock but rather the combined force of these individuals, and it profoundly impacts what’s called Dark Time, which is perhaps better described as Dream Time as it is the time continuum that presides over dreams, and it is not linear. It travels in every direction at once, and it’s infinite, because of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be?

Anyway, whenever the number of these folks—individually called Firmament Surgeons—drops to a dangerously low level, it invites a dream monster called the devil-in-dreams to try to gain permanent control of Dark Time, thus giving it the power to end everyone’s dreams, and without dreams humans apparently become bitter, forlorn shells of their former selves, which is exactly what the devil-in-dreams wants, so it can feast on humanity’s hopelessness and despair. Mmm, such tasty, tasty despair. Well, the bare minimum of Firmament Surgeons needed to work the Night Clock is ten, and there are currently only nine extant, with the tenth slated to be born any day now. So the devil-in-dreams attempts to seize its chance by having its minions the Autoscopes and Toyceivers (which, honestly, both sound like something Meloy made up as a 10-year-old and decided to throw in here because they still sound kinda sorta cool, I guess?) to build an army of machines to hunt down and destroy all of the remaining Firmament Surgeons, or at least enough of them that it can wrest control of Dark Time away from humanity forever and then spend the rest of eternity just having loads of fun fucking their shit up. And so the race to beat the clock begins . . . the Night Clock, that is. Mwa ha ha ha!

Ahem, sorry. Right, so, as best I can gather, that is the plot of this book. I say as best I can gather because the author took the concept of dream logic to its extreme and pretty much did away with any sort of linearity or straightforward storytelling here, instead tossing a bunch of disparate patchwork fragments together into a narrative quilt that barely moves the plot in anything like a forward direction for probably 90% of the book, and then hits you with the main plot towards the very end, right when you’re just starting to figure out who everyone is and what their role is supposed to be. Considering that The Night Clock is about dreams, this sort of writing style could actually have worked in favor of the concept. However, in order for that to be the case, one needs to see a very clear distinction between the dream reality and, er . . . reality reality, and the main characters while they’re in those different realities. As it stands, it’s pretty much impossible to do that once we know about Dark Time, the Quays and the rest. What happens instead is that an assortment of vaguely defined characters move around between the dream world and waking world, doing things that barely seem to make sense or have anything to do with the story (What is Les’s deal exactly? And what the hell was that fetus in the jar all about?)

Which brings me to one of my main complaints with this book: there are way too damn many characters who aren’t quite distinguishable from one another. And I don’t mean just the supporting cast—Meloy presents a handful of point-of-view characters, and even they were pretty bland and undifferentiated for the most part, making it a nigh herculean task to care about any of them. The exception was Chloe, the unborn tenth Firmament Surgeon, who for some reason that is never explained (honestly, there’s a whole LOT of shit left unexplained) has a dual existence in the womb and in her Quay (dream realm) as a sort of ageless wide-eyed innocent. And though they aren’t p.o.v. characters, some of the sentient animals are quite cool, especially a tiger called Bronze John and a Saluki named Bix.

Another big problem I had with the protagonists is the morally outrageous thing they do at the end of the book to capture the central villain. I hesitate to spoil it for anyone who does still want to read the book, but (consider yourself warned—if you don’t want to read the spoiler, go straight to the next paragraph!) they essentially murder an innocent man—innocent, at least, with respect to the rest of the story. The author goes out of his way to stress that the guy is a morally/psychologically sick individual. So I guess that’s supposed to make it okay? Yeah, fuck that. Murder is murder, and the members of the Night Clock all either participate in or witness that murder. Yet none of them ever questions it, or is even the slightest bit traumatized or bothered by it, including a couple of medical professionals (Hippocratic oath, anyone?) and the few children who are present. His death was not gentle either—it was gruesome and painful. In the end, the murdered character became a convenient vessel for their plans and nothing more. For a group of people who are essentially in charge of protecting all of humanity, this was more than a little troubling and left a very sour taste in my mouth over the book’s entire resolution.

The Night Clock does have some points in its favor though. Meloy is certainly an adroit wordsmith with a real knack for darkly poetic turns of phrase. Moreover, there are more than enough solid ideas and characters here to craft not just a much more substantial novel than we got (about 250 pages story-wise) but even a limited series. In the right hands this could’ve been epic, perhaps something like King’s Dark Tower series, where instead of a ka-tet, the members of the Night Clock are gathered together over the course of the series and battle it out with the devil-in-dreams and its followers in various surreal dream settings, until the final major battle settles things once and for all (or doesn’t). Instead we got an anemic novel with far too much stuffed into it and the barest minimum of an attempt to cobble together an actual story out of these pieces. I know this is Meloy’s first novel but he desperately needed an editor to tell him, “Well, gee, Paul, lots of cool ideas here, but it’s not quite there yet. Maybe flesh this out a bit more, let us get to know and love these characters, and make the enemies scarier. Also, lose the cold-blooded murder at the end. These are the good guys.”

Yes, that might have done it. Sadly, the grand and unforgettable saga of a ragtag group of oneiric soldiers and agents coming together to save the beautiful realms of our sleeping selves that this could’ve been remains a, um . . . dream.

Grade: C

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

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

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

‘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

Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Dark Companions’ – A Review

IX-ramsey-campbell-dark-companionsMany horror fans would agree that Ramsey Campbell is the quintessential British modern master of the genre.  If not, they should give this book a try.  Dark Companions is one of the author’s earliest short story collections, but also one of his best.  Campbell uncommonly and artfully bridges the Old World Gothic-style tale with the modern horror terrain exemplified by Stephen King and later Clive Barker, and Dark Companions is a prime example of that.  These are mostly ghost stories of a sort, and the majority of them are a unique enough riff on that theme, but what really gives Campbell’s yarns their wallop is the absolutely superb writing on display here.  Even the less successful pieces in the collection are a worthy investment of one’s time for the sheer beauty of the sentences alone; but luckily, the majority of the tales in Dark Companions are brilliant.

The opening story in this collection, Mackintosh Willy, won the World Fantasy Award in 1980, and deservedly so. In it, a young boy’s crime against a homeless man is avenged from beyond the grave.  Other standouts are Down There, where an office building’s sub-basement  houses something monstrous, Out of Copyright, in which an anthologist of obscure dark stories finds his holy grail . . . an unwittingly releases an entropic evil into the world, Little Voices, where a priggish childless teacher finds herself haunted by the spirit of a puckish but desolate infant that tests her patience and her sanity, and The Companion, which finds its protagonist braving an abandoned fairground ride with unexpectedly creepy results.

But undoubtedly, the real star of this collection is The Pattern, about a haunted field whose evil is not bounded by time.  Rarely does a story truly shock me, but the ending of this one caught me right in my quivering heart, and I found myself only vacating my bed to void my bladder quite reluctantly, and then returning to it as quickly as I could.  Maybe it was because the main character was, like myself, an artist, or maybe it had to do with me being somewhat agoraphobic.  But I think it owed more to the fact that an evil which could freely violate the laws of physics (namely the impossibility of traveling back in time) seemed like it would hardly be constrained by something as paltry as being a mere piece of fiction, and that it could spring wholly into existence simply for the fact that I had opened the pages of Mr. Campbell’s book and read about it.  Beyond the tale’s scare factor, its title also has multiple levels of meaning, all the more so for its protagonist being a painter.

A few of these pieces left me with more questions than answers, but they were no less scary for that.  The Puppets, for example, is undeniably about a haunted Punch and Judy show (which are pretty creepy to begin with, it must be said), but the question I had at the end is, was Mr. Ince, the proprietor and operator of the show, the poltergeist behind the scenes or simply another puppet?  And perhaps that was the point.  That kind of thing is hard for veteran horror writers to pull off, much less one only about a third of the way into his career as Campbell was when he penned this.  Another such story was The Show Goes On, which had a vague and claustrophobic ending that somehow works despite the confusion.  Campbell even manages to inject some dark humor here and there, such as in Heading Home, where the title, it is gradually revealed, is quite literal.  And in Baby, an old alcoholic is relentlessly followed by the baby carriage once used by the bag lady he murdered.

Out of the twenty-one stories in Dark Companions, there were really only two that I didn’t care for, both near the back of the volume.  The big revelation at the end of Conversion, as well as the second person point-of-view (an unusual choice), felt a little too gimmicky.  And The Chimney, after a pretty solid set-up, doesn’t quite deliver on the menacing possibilities of its premise.  Even these were enjoyable enough though, and as always, Campbell’s dazzling way with words makes each story a gem to read.  These two just didn’t quite have the sparkle of the others.  But for my money, two semi-duds out of twenty-one stories makes this collection a real treasure chest for fans of British horror stories in general and Ramsey Campbell fans in particular.  If you can find it, this collection is not to be missed!

Grade: A