BOOK REVIEW: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Great God PanThe Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This speculative fiction novella mixes horror and sci-fi in a genre-bending work of intrigue. When I started the book, I was surprised to learn that it was from the last decade of the 19th century. The opening chapter, which is what I credit as science fiction, presents an argument that reality as we know it is just a veneer beyond which we cannot experience, and it’s stated not unlike what one would hear in today’s cutting-edge science and philosophical discussions. (e.g. It wasn’t greatly removed from what one might hear from Donald Hoffman, for example.) The mad scientist of the opening chapter proposes that he can, with “minor” neurosurgery [to the extent there is such a thing,] open the doors of perception to make available what lies beyond our reality. We are left to think that he has only succeeded in a lobotomization.

The rest of the book is more the Victorian Era horror that one is likely to hear the story described as. We are introduced to a series of mysteries that will gradually be tied together and related back to the book’s opening. A gentleman is approached by a beggar who – it turns out – was his classmate and should have been a well-to-do landowner, but who reported being ruined by having fallen in with the wrong woman – a not unusual story until one delves into the particulars. We further learn that a man had been found dead at this couple’s property before the woman disappeared. Later there are a series of murders that have a certain demographic of society all atwitter.

Despite the shortness of the work, it does present jumping perspectives (not within chapters, but between them.) However, it’s not hard to follow, though it’s a bit jarring when the first PoV change hits because it involves a new cast of characters and it isn’t clear how the events tie together. The reader who sticks with it will be benefited by the shift.

This book was widely panned in its day, more for its shocking sexuality than its horror elements. However, it should be pointed out that the author uses strategic ambiguity for this matter, so there is no graphic sexual content. For example, one character may whisper in another’s ear the acts of depravity, but the reader is left to fill in the blanks according to the twistedness of their own particular psyche. For readers who enjoy the freedom to fill in the blanks, this is an interesting approach – others might not like the withholding of detail.

I enjoyed this book. It’s readable, despite the era from which it came. As I said, in some sense, it’s ahead of its time. The non-linear plotting builds the up the intrigue nicely. I’d highly recommend it for readers of weird stories, horror, or speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Monsters by Meg Hafdahl & Kelly Florence

The Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and MoreThe Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and More by Meg Hafdahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Scheduled Release: October 1, 2019

Monsters, especially movie monsters, and science don’t seem like peas in a pod – one being fictitious and favoring the outlandish and the other insisting on firm roots in reality. Still, the supernatural creatures that enter folklore or mythology (and many movie monsters derive from these sources – whether loosely or closely) often arise because of some real world phenomena, e.g. genetic conditions that cause one to grow hair everywhere or – conversely – that make one pasty complected and sun-avoiding. It’s these kernels of truth as well as the limits of what is possible that form the core of this book. It considers a wide range of “monsters” from psychopathic humans to mythical monsters to ghosts to aliens to mysterious creatures of unknown origins.

The two focal points of a book like this (e.g. monsters and science) are seldom equal. A popular class of nonfiction books has arisen that exists to convey scientific ideas by exploiting pop culture for examples. This isn’t that kind of book. I don’t say that as a criticism. There is room for both types of books. But in this one, the science is secondary to giving readers interested in movie monsters some context and background. This stress can be seen in the book’s organization (i.e. each of its chapters features a different horror [or horror-adjacent] film and its monster) as well the authors’ expertise (while they consulted scientists, the authors are more knowledgeable about horror movies.) Also, the focus is tighter on the type of monster under examination, and the discussion of science roams through different scientific disciplines (including social sciences and even humanities – and, in one instance, pseudoscience) as it discusses what Hafdahl and Florence are interested in, which is any real word bases for the plausibility of these monsters.

Again, the last paragraph isn’t so much a criticism as a statement of what kind of book this is — and isn’t. (Needless to say by this point, it’s also not a book about the science and technology of making credible monsters for movies [e.g. CGI or the anatomy of a credible kaiju,] which is another worthy topic of discussion for another book.) The fact that the book is inclusive of discussions beyond biology and physics and which range into the social sciences and other disciplines offers the reader interesting insights. The exploration of what makes an entity terrifying was fascinating to me, and there is a significant art, science, and psychology to that subject, itself.

I will say that there was at least one time when I couldn’t really grasp how the science under discussion was relevant to the topic (i.e. monster) under discussion. It seemed as though the authors had succumbed to a common ailment of writing – that is, the inability to pitch material that is good, hard worked for, but ultimately irrelevant.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I learned about how the monsters of the silver screen relate to happenings in the real world. There were several references to how quirky little news stories influenced screenwriters and directors to come up with some of the iconic horror and dark sci-fi movies. If you are interested in the origins of monsters, I’d recommend you check this book out.

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POEM: It Must Feed

It’s there.

Down deep

the dark deep

without at drip,

a drop,

or a peep.

Silent as a kingly tomb–

or a sleeping mother’s womb.

It sits as still as a blind mole rat–

but seething like a vampiric bat.

And if that door should open,

there is a truth unspoken.

It will go out to feed.

Spawning a terror stampede.

Gobbling, gobbling–no tasting, just killing.

No time to savor the fear it’s instilling.

It must feed.

BOOK REVIEW: Nightmares ed. by Ellen Datlow

Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern HorrorNightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is an anthology of 24 horror short stories. Horror is a simplification; there are several cross-genre pieces (e.g. dark sci-fi, dark historical fiction, tales of the weird, etc.) as well as stories that have a realistic—but dark—tone. However, it’s all fiction linked by a visceral darkness.

These stories have all been previously published in various magazines or collections, and they were all written during the decade between 2005 and 2015.

1.) “Shallaballah” by Mark Samuels: A celebrity awakens in a hospital after a drunken crash that necessitated reconstructive surgery. It slowly dawns on him that the clinic isn’t what it seemed. This is an intriguing and distinctive tale.

2.) “Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe: A horror writer has the family of an old friend to his house. He tells them that it’s the “least haunted house in the Midwest,” despite a gruesome history that suggests a place where evil comes to play. This was among my favorites. The horror writer character is well-developed.

3.) “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge: It’s never good when someone calls you in the middle of the night and asks you to bring a shovel. But sometimes it’s even worse than expected. I’ve read this one before. It’s a great premise and an engaging story. This anthology includes both stories that feel like they are realistically set in the world we know, as well as speculative fiction pieces. This feels like the former, but makes a shift.

4.) “Dead Sea Fruit” by Kaaron Warren: There’s a myth among anorexics of the Ash Mouth Man, whose kiss robs its victims of the ability to taste pleasant flavors. A dentist of a different ilk takes up with this mythical man. I’d place this one more as a tale of the weird than horror, but it’s on the dark side of that sub-genre. It’s well-written.

5.) “Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle: An abduction and abuse victim tells her story of being locked in a closet, but no one believes the part about her fantastic escape. This is a gritty and evocative piece.

6.) “Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files: This is an unconventional approach to story. The information content is conveyed by way of a file from a parapsychology institute after a coroner’s inquest of a psychic medium’s death proves inconclusive. I sometimes like this approach. Reading through a file fills a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, and offers the challenge of piecing together events oneself. This story was solid, but not my favorite of the bunch.

7.) “Hushabye” by Simon Bestwick: A man out walking in the middle of the night stumbles onto the scene of a young girl under attack. Strangely, there seems to be a metallic substance pouring between the girl’s mouth and that of her attacker. This is crime fiction with a supernatural twist.

8.) “Very Low-Flying Aircraft” by Nicholas Royle: A Royal Air Force air crew in Zanzibar shows off for some ladies with dire consequences. This one is in the realist vein. It feels like a story one might be told in a bar by a particularly gifted storytelling veteran.

9.) “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan: This tale seems to take place in the Hansel and Gretel universe. An unsavory merchant of the illicit woos a witch, and, surprisingly, it doesn’t work out as he’d hoped. This is a compelling story in the dark fairy tale sub-genre.

10.) “The Clay Party” by Steve Duffy: This one has a 19th century vibe, not only because that’s when it’s set, but because it’s conveyed through documentation as was a popular approach of the era. In this case it’s a newspaper’s reprinting of the diary of an individual from an ill-fated cross-continental convoy. (i.e. “Clay Party” as in Donner Party.) The diary approach worked well, being both easy to follow and having an authentic feel.

11.) “Strappado” by Laird Barron: Two hip and cosmopolitan lovers attend the performance art event of an artist deemed trendy and edgy by the in-crowd. The performance doesn’t work out for everybody. This was evocative, and was, perhaps, a cautionary tale about being too up for trendy and edgy activities.

12.) “Lonegan’s Luck” by Stephen Graham Jones: A snake-oil salesman knows something that the locals don’t, and it’s not about the efficacy of his product. This is another of my favorites. It’s a Western with a supernatural twist.

13.) “Mr Pigsny” by Reggie Oliver: A Professor with some mobster relatives attends the funeral of one such gangster. The Professor is willed a Ming vase that he’d once admired, but ends up tangled up in the dealings between the deceased and a mysterious “spiritualist.” The spiritualist, Mr. Pigsny, is masterfully portrayed as both a quiet professional and spine-tinglingly creepy.

14.) “At Night, When the Demons Come” by Ray Cluley: A big, strong man and a little girl meet, and team up with, a party of four survivors in a demon-infested dystopian wasteland. Whether the odd pairing are truly allies, or, if not, what type of threat they present is not as was expected and made for a thought-provoking piece. I found this tale to be clever, and it revealed an unexpected theme.

15.) “Was She Wicked? Was She Good?” by M. Rickert: A little girl makes enemies by cruelly dispensing with little forest creatures–fairies, perhaps. Her parents debate what they should do to stave off the wrath of their neighbors of another species. The title says it all. This is one of those stories that tactically reveal information to keep the reader wondering.

16.) “The Shallows” by John Langan: It’s not so easy for me to describe this story. There’s a lot going on. It’s what I’d call busy. The part of the story that resonated with me was about a stray dog that a family adopts only to have its (apparently-negligent) owner come and retrieve it. This was among my least favorite entries, but it was solidly written.

17.) “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska: A newly-wed man waits at Heathrow airport for the grandmother of his Polish wife. That present-day event brackets a flashback from the grandmother’s youth that helps to explain what seems like inexplicable old-world behavior. This is one of the shortest pieces, but it’s an endearing tale–even with the dark events of the flashback.

18.) “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn: This is an intense story about a family of four who go on a vacation that’s a sham. The mom and dad pretend they are taking the kids to Canada in their RV only to detour into remote parts of the Pacific Northwest. The depravity quotient of this family is high. Much of the story is brutally realistic, but there is a supernatural element with regards maps, which appear to be marked up differently to each member of the family. The maps play an important role in the unfolding of the story. This story is well-written and gripping, but, unlike the bulk of the works herein, it’s not PG-13.

19.) “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” by Dan Chaon: This is the story of a father and son living in a zombie apocalypse-ish—after the mother died. That may make this sound like one of the more derivative stories in the bunch, but the author creates a unique zombie “apocalypse.” This isn’t the dark and gritty world of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Here, the zombies are more of an inconvenience—like wild animals that get into one’s garden–rather than a swarming threat to life and limb. This is both an interesting take on the sub-genre, and an intriguing commentary on humanity.

20.) “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” by Robert Shearman: A girl requires the execution of her dolls from both her brother and later her new husband. She says she cannot love them fully as long as the dolls are there taking in her love. Creepy, that’s the word for this one. It has a lower body count (of living things) than many of the stories, and yet it’s as disturbing as they come.

21.) “Interstate Love Song” by Caitlin R. Keirnan: A couple of homicidal girls pick up a hitchhiker as they ride cross-country. There are some interspersed flashbacks that show that this isn’t their first rodeo, but, still, it doesn’t go like the others. This is a page-turner.

22.) “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix: Wouldn’t it suck to die because the post-Cold War bureaucracy didn’t have institutional memory of one of its doomsday technologies—especially one that lived next door? This is one of my favorites. Besides the fear factor, this story has a dry humor that I found amusing. Like a few of the others, this story manages to make a commentary without detracting from its entertainment value.

23.) “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud: A bookstore owner / occultist who used to work for a crime boss is strong-armed back into the life. What he stumbles into is even worse than he expected, but he makes a decision that will dramatically change his life. This was also an engaging story as well as a strong entrant in the anthology.

24.) “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey: A couple of burglars badly overestimate the ease of robbing an old man and what will come of it. It starts out a bit like a creepy version of “Home Alone”–with an old man instead of an eight-year-old, but then takes a turn into territory darker than Wild Bill of “Silence of the Lambs” fame.

This is a strong collection. There are several stories that have that cinematic quality that make for gripping reading. There weren’t any pieces that I didn’t at all care for, and there were several that hooked me.

I’d recommend this collection for those who like dark fiction.

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The Moors of Your Mind: A Halloween Poem

Butoh artist, source unattributable

Butoh artist, source unattributable

in the moors of your mind
where lurk the moles of souls unkind
spying out your darkest dreams
amid the hum of silent screams

awakened hip deep in the mud
as chest-high waters rise in flood
you struggle but it pulls you down
in a boat, up drifts a blood-soaked clown

his hand grips a shiny new bone-saw
his other hand, a twin-hooked claw
your only hope; that you’re still dreaming
but wouldn’t you waken from your own screaming?

BOOK REVIEW: Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

Anno DraculaAnno Dracula by Kim Newman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Anno Dracula is set in a world subsequent to the events of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the world of Anno Dracula, Dracula kills Van Helsing (not the other way round) and becomes more powerful than ever. In fact, the Count has married himself into line to become king. Vampires flourish in the open and their numbers are swelling. But a few of them are being gruesomely murdered. In Newman’s work, the vicious Whitechapel murders attributed to Jack the Ripper target young, “turned” working women of Whitechapel. The killings attract attention and become politically charged. The book’s plot revolves around the investigation by an unlikely duo, Charles Beauregard (human) and Geneviève Dieudonné (Vampire elder), into the murders.

Newman creates a fascinating world that blends not only his own characters (e.g. Beauregard and Dieudonné), but also characters from other popular works set in the 19th century as well as from our own history. Some of these borrowed characters are important to the story, others are mere cameos, and still others are references to the departed or imprisoned. Among the book’s fictional pantheon are those from works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and—of course—Bram Stoker. Bram Stoker lends the critical character of Dr. John Seward to the book, although there are references to most of that book’s major characters. (You’ll miss some connections if you haven’t read Dracula, but you’ll still be able to follow the story.) The next biggest contributor of characters is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mycroft Holmes, Inspector Lestrade, and Professor Moriarty are all present in the flesh, though the latter plays a small role, and others—including the great detective, himself—are referenced throughout.

Many of the real world characters are literary greats (poets, playwrights, and novelists) including George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Alfred Tennyson, and Oscar Wilde. However, also included are political figures, royalty, and—of course—the victims of Jack the Ripper. This mixing of the literary and historical worlds lures book-lovers further down the rabbit hole.

If this book seems like a murder mystery, it’s not. One of the interesting elements of Newman’s approach is that he reveals the killer from the outset. While we know who the killer is from the book’s opening, we don’t know whether or how he will be brought to justice—or what precisely justice means in this case. The book is more about the web of intrigue that surrounds the murders than it is about the murders. Ultimately, the book takes in a much bigger picture than a few murders in the seedy side of London.

Anno Dracula is intriguing and readable. If one has read Dracula, the various Sherlock Holmes stories, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and other contemporary literature, it’s all the more enjoyable for the way it artfully places these all in the same universe. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of the classic popular fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Monstrous edited by Ellen Datlow

The MonstrousThe Monstrous by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Release Date: October 27, 2015

Amazon page

This is a story anthology offering tales of monsters—just not your everyday monsters. In her Introduction, Editor Ellen Datlow said her solicitation for stories asked for “unusual monster stories.” She wanted neither “human monsters” (i.e. no pedophiles or serial killers) nor was she interested in your classic Transylvanian Count Dracula. With this book’s 20 stories, the authors succeed in meeting Datlow’s request—in several cases spectacularly. Some of the stories are chilling, others are creepy, and two are even humorous, but all feature monsters that are out of the ordinary, or—at least—the monsters are in extraordinary situations.

Without further ado, I’ll offer a brief synopsis of, and comments on, the stories in this anthology:

1.) A Natural History of Autumn by Jeffery Ford: Set in Japan, a salaryman takes a girl-next-door escort to a remote onsen (thermal springs bathhouse and inn.) Neither of the main characters is what they seem, and, therein, lies the story’s appeal.

2.) Ashputtle by Peter Straub: A beloved kindergarten teacher describes her life and experience of the disappearance of a bright student. This story comes closest to violating the “no human monsters” proviso, but it creates a character so intriguing that you don’t necessarily care.

3.) Giants of the Earth by Dale Bailey: Miners stumble onto something unexpected deep within the Earth. This wasn’t one of the more engaging or memorable works, though it does have an intriguing premise.

4.) The Beginning of the Year without Summer by Caitlín R. Kiernan: A professor and a young, female townie chat by lakeside, and also a discovered book is returned. This is one of two southern gothic pieces, and is more engaging for the conversation between the intelligent professor and a more “common” young woman than for monstrous or supernatural elements.

5.) A Wish from a Bone by Gemma Files: An archeological team in a war zone stumble into more than they signed up for. Like a terrestrial Aliens movie with Sumerian evil spirits in lieu of aliens.

6.) The Last Clean, Bright Summer by Livia Llewellyn: A teenaged girl in a dystopian future travels with her parents to the sea for a rite of passage of an unexpected and haunting variety. This is one of the most visceral entries, and the author captures the teenage voice to great effect. This is in my top five stories from the anthology.

7.) The Totals by Adam-Troy Castro: A get-together between monsters to discuss quarterly figures and give out performance awards. This is one of the humor-oriented pieces—though not to the extent of the Monsters animated movies. The two humor pieces (the other being How I Met the Ghoul) offer two different angles on monster humor. This piece is set in a monstrous world, but juxtaposed against that eeriness is the work-a-day feature of a staff meeting. (The other story is set in our world—or at least a very mundane world reminiscent of ours—and draws its humor from the introduction of the monster into the midst in a very banal environment.)

8.) The Chill Clutch of the Unseen by Kim Newman: The last monster killer waits for the last monster to steam into town. This is one of the entries with a wild west feel to it. A common approach in this collection is to create unusual monster stories by putting monsters that may or may not be usual (in this case they aren’t) into settings and across from characters that one wouldn’t expect to see them.

9.) Down Among the Dead Men by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois: A man discovers that his best friend in a Nazi concentration camp is a vampire. Referring to the previous entry (i.e. the Kim Newman story), this is an example of a typical monster (a vampire) given new life by placing it in a context that one would least expect to find it—a concentration camp. This was also one of my top five from this collection.

10.) Catching Flies by Carole Johnstone: A girl and her baby brother are removed from a household (by a DFACS-like entity) after their mother dies from mysterious causes. I mentioned a story done in the voice of a teenager. This is one of a few entries written in the voice of a child—which is very apropos for an anthology about monsters.

11.) Our Turn Too Will One Day Come by Brian Hodge: A man is called in the middle of the night, and asked to come and bring a shovel—which is, needless to say, never a good situation. The monsters, while fascinatingly described and unique, are almost superfluous to this story. The monsters appear only at the end, and it would be a highly readable story without them—though it would be in the wrong collection sans the monsters.

12.) Grindstone by Stephen Graham Jones: A man who’s been shot up is fleeing from something across desolate territory. This is the other entry with a very Western feel to it. This is also one of the shortest entries of the batch.

13.) Doll Hands by Adam L. G. Nevill: Set in a dystopian future, a laborer in a luxury building takes matters into his own (doll-like) hands when he can no longer accept the atrocities the super-wealthy patrons of the building are perpetrating. One of the great features of this story is that it creates visual imagery that one isn’t sure whether to take literally or just descriptively. For example, the lead baddie is an old, rich woman who’s described in avian terms. It’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong in this world, though there is strategic ambiguity as to what. This is in my top five.

14.) How I Met the Ghoul by Sofia Samatar: A reporter conducts an interview with a ghoul in an airport lounge. This is the other story that is more comedy than horror. The comedy is born of putting the monstrous creature in a mundane setting during a workaday interview. It’s not even the kind of hard-hitting story that a well-known journalist would take on, but more like a cub reporter doing a human interest featurette.

15.) Jenny Come to Play by Terry Dowling: A former Siamese twin, separated from her twin as a teenager, admits herself into a psychiatric hospital where her psychiatrist tries to separate fact from fiction and the twisted imaginings of insanity from reality. These Siamese twins shared no common organs, just muscle, and were ideal candidates for separation as infants. However, their father kept them conjoined (and much worse) so that they could be the main attraction in his cabinet of curiosities. Not only is this story in my top five, I’d have to call it my favorite of the bunch. It reminds me a little of the work of the novelist team Preston and Child at their best. It has the same combination of creepiness and dark foreboding, while keeping one in the dark as to what imaginable events have actually transpired.

16.) Miss Ill-kept Runt by Glen Hirshberg: A family drives through the night to go to stay with family as if fleeing an ill-defined threat. This is another of the stories done in a child’s voice and perspective, and it captures that voice well.

17.) Chasing Sunset by A.C. Wise: A young man flees across country in an attempt to escape a demonic father who is after his body. This story offers the most impressive use of language. It’s one of the most enjoyable pieces to read, and, while it didn’t quite make my top five, it definitely gets honorable mention.

18.) The Monster Makers by Steve Rasnic Tem: A grandfather teaches his grandkids the family magic of being able to make others turn into monsters. In a way this seems like a thinly-veiled allegory for how grandparents turn children into “monsters,” but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

19.) Piano Man by Christopher Fowler: A travel writer doing a story on New Orleans gets caught up in a local voodoo turf war. This is another Southern Gothic piece with post-Katrina New Orleans as the setting—with all its tragic, macabre undertones.

20.) Corpsemouth by John Langan: An American visits his ancestral home and old world family in Scotland and discovers that the “gibberish” last message of his dying father actually had a rather spectacular meaning. This story rounds out my top five. I found it to be engaging, highly readable, and with an intriguing premise.

This anthology is thrilling and readable, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to read about unusual monsters.

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BOOK REVIEW: 999 ed. by Al Sarrantonio

999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense by Al Sarrantonio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

999 is a collection of 28 short stories and one novella that are all in the genre of horror and dark suspense. The collection includes some superstar authors such as Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, and David Morrell, but all of the authors are established writers and most will be familiar to readers in this genre.

I won’t go into each story in-depth, but will list and briefly describe each. A few of the stories stuck with me, while others were quite forgettable—so I’ll point out which were which. Your results may vary.

1.) “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” by Kim Newman: This is a Cold War Zombie story. It was intriguing.
2.) “The Ruins of Contracoeur” by Joyce Carol Oates: The family of a disgraced Judge move to a remote area to stay out of the limelight, and faceless monster sightings ensue. How bad could a Joyce Carol Oates’ story be? It’s solid and well-written. It wasn’t among my favorites.
3.) “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Thomas M. Disch: An “inanimate” stuffed owl and plush-toy cat converse about their wicked, spouse-abusing owner. Creepy, but not one of the strongest entries. The stories in this collection range from realism to far-fetched speculative fiction. This work is toward the latter end of the spectrum.
4.) “The Road Virus Heads North” by Stephen King: A mutating “killer” picture is obtained at a yard sale. This is among the stronger stories.
5.) “Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story” by Neil Gaiman: About a collector of the “exotic.” While Gaiman is my favorite author of this bunch, I can’t say this is story was among my favorites of the collection. I will say that it has some of the cleverest wording of any of the stories (as one would expect of Gaiman), but maybe that humor works at right-angles to the story. You decide.
6.) “Growing Things” by T.E.D. Klein: About a husband / Mr. Fixit and his following of advice columns on a growth. This is a short piece, but not among the more memorable stories. It’s innovative, but not the least bit intense.
7.) “Good Friday” by F. Paul Wilson: A vampire story set in a convent. A good story, but obviously not particularly innovative. However, if you like the idea of nuns battling vampires, here’s your story.
8.) “Excerpts from the Records of the New Zodiac and the Diaries of Henry Watson Fairfax” by Chet Williamson: A swanky dinner club that rotates hosts and each host tries to outdo the last in the presentation of “exotic delicacies.”
9.) “An Exaltation of Termagants” by Eric Van Lustbader: I’ll have to be honest; this was the least memorable of these stories. When I flipped back through to write this review, I found that I’d completely forgotten the piece. I think its lack of memorableness speaks for itself. It’s about an unappealing man and his sucky life that’s tied to his poor relationships with women. I think the problem is two-fold. First, it’s one of the longer stories in the collection. Second, unlike Joe R. Lansdale’s “Mad Dog Summer,” it’s a long short story without memorable characters or a taut story arc. In short, if you’re going to go long, you’ve got to give us characters we can either love or despise, and you’ve got to give us a pace that keeps us intrigued. This story does neither. I know it’s all subjective, but I think this collection without this story would be improved.
10.) “Itinerary” by Tim Powers: A mysterious caller asks the protagonist to tell an unknown woman caller that said caller “just left” in response to her inquiry. From there the story meanders into personal tragedy before bringing it all back together in the end. It was so-so. I liked the premise, but it didn’t have that x-factor in execution.
11.) “Catfish Gal Blues” by Nancy A. Collins: A river catfish mermaid story. This was a weird but highly memorable story.
12.) “The Entertainment” by Ramsey Campbell: Man thinks he’s checked into a hotel, but it’s really some sort of asylum. Not the most memorable, but not the least either.
13.) “ICU” by Edward Lee: Man awakes in an ICU, and is informed that he’s a gangster involved in pedophilia and other hardcore taboo pornography. Vivid and well-crafted.
14.) “The Grave” by P.D. Cacek: A young woman with a horrible mother discovers a grave in the woods that she’s never seen before. This one is eery and visceral.
15.) “The Shadow, The Darkness” by Thomas Ligotti: About a tour group promised “the ultimate physical-metaphysical excursion.” This paranormal story is just OK.
16.) “Knocking” by Rick Hautala: Remember Y2K? It was the idea that the entirety of the world of computing would come to a screeching halt because their little (inadequately programmed) computer minds would be blown by a date starting in “20?” This story is based on that notion.
17.) “Rio Grande Gothic” by David Morrell: A cop keeps finding shoes left in the same section of road, and eventually begins to wonder if someone isn’t trying to tell him something. This story does a good job of capturing one’s curiosity and keeping one’s attention.
18.) “Des Saucisses, Sans Doute” by Peter Schneider: This is one of the shorter stories in the book, and it’s also an almost absurdist dark piece. You may laugh or you may vomit, either way the writer had an effect.
19.) “Angie” by Ed Gorman: This story is white-trash gothic. It’s about a couple that are “stuck” with this kid, and are concerned that the child has learned their dirty, little secret and will turn them in. It was one of the stories that stuck with me most intensely. The unlikable character development is exceptional.
20.) “The Ropy Thing” by Al Sarrantonio: A couple of kids in a neighborhood assaulted by a thing that is… well, ropy (rope-like.) Not one of the better pieces, but it has the virtue of being short.
21.) “The Tree is My Hat” by Gene Wolfe: A man befriends an outcast on island in the South Pacific. It’s a solid piece.
22.) “Styx and Bones” by Edward Bryant: A cheating man comes down with a mysterious ailment. This is a well-executed story.
23.) “Hemophage” by Steven Spruill: Another vampire story, this one set inside a detective story.
24.) “The Book of Irrational Numbers” by Michael Marshall Smith: It’s about a guy from Roanoke, Virginia who is obsessed with numbers. As there aren’t many math short stories, if you are a big fan of math fiction you may find this interesting. The writing style is fun. If you aren’t a math fan, you may lose the story.
25.) “Mad Dog Summer” by Joe R. Lansdale: A man recounts a story of murder from his youth living in a rural community. This is one of the strongest stories in the collection. It’s also one of the longest, but the author does an outstanding job of keeping one’s attention throughout.
26.) “The Theatre” by Bentley Little: A clerk at a bookstore ventures into a forbidden floor above the store to find a creepy theater that will change his life. It’s a good, creepy story.
27.) “Rehersals” by Thomas F. Monteleone: I don’t know that I would have put this in the same genre as the other stories, but it’s an excellent story—and so I can see why the editor was eager to include it. It is speculative fiction, as opposed to being realist, but I wouldn’t count it as either horror or suspense. It’s about a man handling props in a community theater who is given glimpses into what his life could have been like if he’d stood up to his abusive father. It’s one of the best stories in the collection.
28.) “Darkness” by Dennis L. McKiernan: A man moves into a beautiful house willed to him by an eccentric uncle. The problem is that the lights in the house are so bright as to be an assault on the eyes—leaving not a shadow or dark space in the house. The lights are wired to be either all on or all off. It doesn’t occur to the nephew that the lights might be that way for a reason.
29.) “Elsewhere” by William Peter Blatty: This is the longest piece–a novella / very short novel and not a short story. It’s about a realtor who’s trying to sell a house that’s haunted. She brings together a writer and a couple “experts on the paranormal” to debunk the haunting so that the house will become salable. But everything is not as it appears.

This is a good collection of stories. Some are better than others, but the best are extraordinary. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who likes horror, dark suspense, or the macabre. Within that genre, it’s an eclectic mix of stories in form, substance, and style.

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How to Kill a “Cereal Killer” and Restore Halloween

cereal killerI know what you’re going to say. Why would I want to murder a cereal killer, a taco belle, a holy cow, a pig in a blanket, a deviled egg, or any of the other bearers of bad Halloween punnery? First, you want to kill someone.  You don’t have to admit it to me and I’d advise against admitting it to the District Attorney, but at least admit it to yourself. Second, if you kill the person you really want to kill (e.g. your boss, the tax man, your personal trainer, or your hairdresser—sorry, low blow) you’ll be the lead suspect. Therefore, you need to find a way to vent your homicidal rage into productive outlets, and I’d argue that the killing of punsters is community service. You shouldn’t even think of it as murder. It’s more like culling the Halloween herd. Forest fires kill, but the next year the forest is more lush and beautiful than ever before.

 

Now let’s get down to the real reason to conduct your own Halloween killing spree. Because it’s the perfect time for the perfect crime. Think about it.

  • Anonymity: Except for the lazy people who wear a T-shirt with “Halloween Costume” printed in unimaginative block letters, everybody is in makeup or has their head stuffed in some stinking mask that five people have thrown up in within the last three years. This makes it almost impossible to identify suspects. The lazy bastards would be eliminated immediately anyway because it takes commitment to be a homicidal maniac.
  • Relative Inconspicuousness: You won’t be the only one who’s apparently blood spattered. Besides Marti Gras and full moons, what other nights can one say that. There will be large numbers of people wielding weapons and looking creepy. What better time to blend in?
  • Distraction: If I might be granted a brief diatribe. Halloween used to be the holiday of terror, but no more. Valentine’s Day may be the holiday of romance (or florists), but Halloween is the holiday of sex. However, you can use this trend to your advantage. There’s a great deal of distraction to be garnered from the proliferation of sexy nurses, sexy waitresses, and sexy actuarials. When the girl whose costume is painted on rather than worn walks through the room to get a single potato chip, that’s a good time to jab the hypodermic into the neck of the nearest drunk pun and get the hell out of dodge.

 

So how will you choose your target? First, as indicated, it’s best to pick someone who’s inebriated because no one will realize they’re dead–and not just passed out–until they begin to stink. Don’t worry, finding a drunk won’t be hard. At a given Halloween party there will be four designated drivers for the 150 people in attendance—so 148 people will be completely hammered. [No, my math is not that bad. Two of those designated drivers are cheating bastards. If you kill a pun who’s a cheating designated driver you’ve hit the trifecta—OK, maybe my math is that bad. At any rate, you get bonus points. ]

 

Next comes the question of determining whether the costume is a pun or not. This can be harder than it seems. Sure there are the easy ones I mentioned above (and others like Kevin “Bacon” [Kevin nametag on a meat vest], “Bat” Man [w/ Louisville Slugger], Down for the Count [Dracula with a blowup doll orally affixed to his crotch region], Spice Girl, Dust Bunny, Formal Apology [tuxedo-clad man with “sorry” written on his tie], etc.) that will be immediately obvious.

 

However, what if one sees a guy in a Grim Reaper costume with a bag of pot. Perhaps this is just someone who likes to imbibe. However, if the pot is dayglow green, then you may have a “the grass is greener on the other side” who desperately needs killing. The key is that one must pay attention to the details. Sometimes the costume will be poorly done. Imagine a fine “Tom the Cat” costume with three misshaped spheres feebly stapled to the crotch region. This is a “horny as a three-balled tom cat” who must die.

 

On the other hand, you should avoid reading too much into costumes. Say you see a girl who looks like a stripper. You shouldn’t engage in some Rube Goldberg-esque thought process in which you conclude that she is saying, “All that glitters is not gold–because sometimes it’s a stripper.” Said woman may merely be costumed as a stripper, or might be a stripper who just got off stage and didn’t have time to go out looking for a costume.

 

When in doubt, if the costume doesn’t seem to make a lick of sense, it’s probably someone’s sense of clever gone awry and you shouldn’t feel bad about friendly fire against a non-pun.

 

Finally, some general rules of thumb (BTW: feel free to kill anyone dressed in a giant mitten with a page of the tax code taped to the thumb):

  • Only kill one pun per party. Being a killer of puns is like being a Marine Sniper—except that it’s completely illegal and involves no honor whatsoever—my point is that if you loiter in place you’ll get pinned down by the Vietcong. It doesn’t matter whether the party in question has the best pigs in a blanket (i.e. the hors doeuvres, not the cutesy couple costume), the best DJ, or the sluttiest witches, maids, librarians, or geologists in town. Don’t get greedy. Get in and get out—well, you can grab a handful of those delectable pigs in a blanket on the way out, but then get out of the house!
  • Never wear the same costume to more than one party. The police call that a clue. You have to be like Kathrine Heigl in that 27 Dresses  movie—which I never saw. Do the quick change like Clark Kent between parties. That brings me to an alternative killing scheme whereby you can kill anyone who’s dressed as a character from a romantic comedy.
  • Don’t consume a lot of legumes, high fiber foods, beer, or Taco Bell before your outing. Just because no one will see your face inside that barf-splotched mask doesn’t mean they won’t be able to smell you. Plus the zippers in costumes are unreliable, and you don’t want a case of Taco Trots to hamper your evening’s fun.
  • Don’t wear a costume that’s too menacing. You want to be able to point to someone who is nearby, completely innocent, and who looks like a killer and say, “she did it.” Also, don’t wear the “Identity Thief” costume in which one has name tags all over one’s outfit with different names. First, it plants the seed of criminality in the mind of those around you. Second, it’s a bad pun and may result in your being stabbed. Which brings me to the ultimate rule:
  • Don’t wear a pun costume yourself, it may result in your being stabbed. I’m not saying that I once stabbed a prostitute with a Seeing Eye dog who turned out to be just another good-hearted Halloween killer because “love is blind,” but…

 

I hope this guide to perpetrating a Halloween massacre has been helpful. I think we’d all like to bring the fear back to Halloween like all the Saints who partied down on All Saints’ Day Eve intended. So, whether you’re a first time killer or you’ve been around the block (another potential costume cliché to kill), a few simple steps will keep you out of the hands of the slutty cops—or regular cops.

BOOK REVIEW: Hellboy: Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola

Hellboy: The Midnight CircusHellboy: The Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Hellboy meets Something Wicked This Way Comes. In this issue, Hellboy—as a boy—runs away from the BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) and stumbles upon a circus that operates only through the wee hours of the morning. An acknowledgement of Ray Bradbury suggests that the use of a creepy, nocturnal circus of the netherworld was not a coincidence but a purposive homage.

The comic also borrows elements of the story of Pinocchio, which is explicitly referenced in the story line.

The comic is well-written and drawn. Those who don’t like it will likely find their dislike rooted in the comic’s ending. The title character doesn’t have a great deal of agency—i.e. he has little influence on the resolution of the story arc. That said, given that Hellboy is a boy in this issue and that his upbringing as a human boy by the Professor is credited with his ability to refrain from regression to his demon-like nature, there’s not a lot that he could probably do without straining credulity.

I enjoyed this book.

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