BOOK REVIEW: Shock Treatment by Cullen Bunn, Peter Milligan, & Aaron Douglas

Shock TreatmentShock Treatment by Cullen Bunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 7, 2022

This graphic novel consists of three unrelated pieces of short fiction. All of the stories are of the horror / dark speculative fiction genres, but – otherwise – they are distinct both with respect to story and art. I enjoyed them all, but definitely felt there was a variation in quality.

“Piecemeal” (Cullen Bunn) is about a clique of teenagers who stumble onto a long-deserted house, and find formaldehyde-preserved body parts. It’s got a “Final Destination” meets “Freddie Krueger” kind of vibe. I would rate it as my least favorite. Despite an intriguing (if simple) premise, it never achieved a high creepiness factor, and it resolved too easily / cleanly for my tastes. It also had the most chaotic art, which I’m sure was on purpose, but it didn’t do much for me.

“God of Tremors” (Peter Milligan) this is a period piece set in the 19th century household of a prominent Anglican vicar. It’s about a boy with epilepsy whose anti-science father wants to beat the demon out of him (because that’s what used to cause medical conditions.) While his mother tries with limited success to protect the boy, he ultimately gets help from an unexpected source. This was my favorite because it generated emotional resonance and offered evocative character development. It also had the cleanest artistic style of the three, though I don’t know how important that was to my liking it.

“10 Years to Death” (Aaron Douglas) shows a boy’s uncle telling him a disturbing tale that took place at a prison where the uncle works as the head jailer. That may seem completely unbelievable, unless you’ve had an uncle who didn’t know how to interact with kids so he just – for good or ill – treated them like adults. This was my favorite as far as story premise is concerned. The way the story unfolds is compelling and well-presented.

If you like short fiction of the dark / horror genre, you may want to look into this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Night Mary by Rick Remender

Night MaryNight Mary by Rick Remender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this graphic novel, the protagonist is a young woman, Mary, who is a talented lucid dreamer – i.e. being conscious in one’s dreams. While lucid dreaming is a real thing, the sci-fi “magic” of the story world is that, using an experimental medication in conjunction with skilled dreamers allows the lucid dreamer to observe and take part in the dreams of another person. Said experimental medication was developed by Mary’s father, who’s a bit of a shady “evil scientist” type, and he employs Mary as his lucid dreamer (even though she is still a high school student.)

The story is intense and provocative. Character development is good and we learn that Mary is dealing with her own mental health issues, presumably PTSD-like traumatization related to an automobile accident she was in with her mother, but she may have already been anxiety prone. Mary’s father is a complex character throughout. He’s cold and distant as a father and obsessive as a scientist, but not altogether dastardly. I enjoyed falling into the story and found it to be narratively taut. That said, it wasn’t with out some problems of pacing and villain monologuing around the climax.

The artwork by Kieron Dwyer succeeded in creating a visceral horror / surreal feel. Also, the use of different color palettes for the real world versus various dream worlds helps to clarify where one is, which is useful in a story that shifts between the real (waking) world and dream scenes.

If you enjoy stories set in dreams and the sci-fi of the unconscious mind, you may want to look into this one.

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Gothic Imagination [Free Verse]

I first saw the stone beast
by the light of a bright day --
frozen, still & placid

My second sighting was on a rainy night,
a steady, careless rain,
the kind of rain
that seems to have declared
itself the new default mode.

I saw it in the space of lightning flash --
the silhouetted gargoyle.
It lacked the fine detail
of its sculptor's effort.
It lacked the clean edges
and ornamental effects.
Imagination filled in the lost detail
with scales rippling under
muscular flesh.

And while the lightning felt prolonged,
it was still just a flash --
leaving me to wonder whether
I'd really seen it rear back,
preparing to lunge off the wall?

And then I saw the world through its eyes
and all was better...

and then all was worse.

Dreaming Evil Clowns [Spencerian Sonnet]

My lungs were burning as I ran through town,
and tried to escape the streets of cobbled stone
and he from whom I ran, that evil clown,
whose paint obscured a face I once had known,

but how could I know something that's unknown
and, thinking that, I knew it made no sense,
though I knew it true deep within my bones.

Then stirred by eyes so burning and intense,
I picked a pointy stick for my defense,
and chucked it at the creature's beastly heart.
I missed its heart by width of a ten-pence.
The clown, in turn, tossed it back like a dart.

Awaking to sharp pains in my frail chest,
the clown had slayed me, or so I guessed.

Necropolis [Free Verse]

a city of the dead
tunneled under the living,

awaiting the flip,
a shift in who's who

-the living & the dead,
-the dead & the living
-the alive and the existent
-the living dead &
those dying alive

all jumbled together
in a sea of inhumanity,
tumbling past each other,

scrambling for humanity -
for the breath of life,
for life in a breath

the musty scent of decay
in the living city
was the first sign...

those in the necropolis 
smelled flowery scents --
clean and bright --
and found those fragrant
perfumes
as revolting as the
living found the rot stench

in the brief time it took
to become acclimated to the stink,
all found themselves in the churn,
struggling for more
of something they
didn't understand

BOOK REVIEW: The Gold Persimmon by Lindsay Merbaum

The Gold PersimmonThe Gold Persimmon by Lindsay Merbaum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This book consists of two stories with the common connection of being set in strange hotels. The first story is split between parts one and three (of three.) This allows part one to tell a story that feels like straightforward realism (while part three is where the story gets a bit trippy and where – in that trippiness – the reader may see connections between the two stories that may or may not be intended.) It’s the story of Cly, an employee of a fancy hotel [The Gold Persimmon] that specializes in serving a grieving clientele, and her love affair with a regular guest, Edith, who is a physician. The strangest thing in this story is that Cly is probably the most attached to her job of any low-level hotel employee in the history of low-level hotel employees.

The second story’s protagonist, Jaime, is an aspiring writer of nonbinary gender identification who is about to take a job in another hotel, a Japanese-style love hotel. [For the unfamiliar, that means a place with themed rooms where people come for short-term stays to get their freak on – think: dungeon, subway train interior, etc.] This story gets weird almost immediately as a fog descends over the city leaving only a few employees and customers trapped together inside the hotel. This is a much more engaging story than the other. The few people in the hotel inexplicably go all “Lord of the Flies,” and the reader can’t be sure whether it’s descent into madness from whatever fog has enveloped the hotel, or whether they are mostly unstable from the start.

It’s extremely difficult to write surreal- / madness-based stories that aren’t distractingly unclear about what – if anything – is real. I felt this story suffered from two difficulties. First, Jaime’s internal monologue sways radically from what seems like extreme paranoia to very reasonable states, but we don’t know the character enough to have a baseline. Second, many of analogies used in describing events read a bit clunky, causing one to need to re-read to try to make sense of whether what is said is what is actually being seen or whether it’s just a confusing metaphor.

That said, I was engaged throughout the story, and found it compelling enough to need to keep reading. I’d say if you don’t mind some ambiguity and experimentation in writing, you’ll enjoy this book. If not, not.

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BOOK REVIEW: When a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González

When a Robot Decides to Die and Other StoriesWhen a Robot Decides to Die and Other Stories by Francisco García González
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 15, 2021

This book isn’t for everyone. There are two factors I believe a reader needs to be aware of going forward. First, shocking and taboo plot devices are used throughout; so, one needs to be mentally ready for bestiality, necrophilia, cannibalism, and enslavement. Second, while this is nominally science fiction, it’s not nerd’s sci-fi, but rather English Lit / Humanities major sci-fi. Which is to say, scientifically- / technologically-minded people are likely be occasionally distracted by thoughts like: “that’s not how that would work,” or “why did he use that word? It doesn’t make sense in that context. Is it just because it sounded vaguely techy?”

For those who are still reading, the stories are more than just shock for shock’s sake. They are thought-provoking, and the taboo topics both engage readers on a visceral level, but also engage readers on an intellectual level as symbolism. While it’s far from great sci-fi, it’s fine psych-fi (a subgenre that – like sci-fi – deals in speculative futures, but which focuses more on changes in human modes of interaction and ways of behaving – rather than on the effects of technological advances.) “The Year of the Pig” was probably my personal favorite. That story explores family dynamics, cultural proclivities, and personal psychology in a smart way.

If the opening paragraph didn’t scare you away, you’ll probably find some compelling stories in this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: I Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson

I Breathed a BodyI Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This is one creepy commentary on technology run amok, and the alienation, desensitization, and disconnection that can result. [Or, at least that’s how I interpret it.] The protagonist is a driven social media executive who finds herself in territory that even she believes is over the line, despite her near psychopathic emotional disconnection. Another way to interpret the story is that the fungi that has taken parasitic control over humanity is making people see the world more as they would – i.e. with less cringing about death, decomposition, and deformation. [I happen to think that the fungi infection is a clever plot device to get across ideas about technology and modernity, but I could be wrong.]

Either way, I do think this is a clever story. There’s a species of Cordyceps fungi that takes control of the brain of an ant, steers it to the top of the nearest tree, and bursts out of the ant’s head to spread its spores from its new, elevated vantage point. This book reminded me of the Cordyceps fungi, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired the story — with the requisite growth in sophistication to account for taking over a much more complex brain. This is a compelling and thought-provoking story, but it’s also gruesome and at times chaotic. If you can take horror, you’ll probably find it worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Crueler than Dead, Vol. 1 by Tsukasa Saimura

Crueler than dead, vol.1 (Crueler than dead, #1)Crueler than dead, vol.1 by Tsukasa Saimura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

A teenage girl regains consciousness in a bland institutional setting to discover that she has been part of medical experimentation. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, is to get a vile of vaccine tested on her and the young boy who will be her traveling companion (as well as, on a bunch of people who didn’t survive) to a stadium in the heart of a Tokyo, a city overrun by Zombies. This is a manga-style graphic novel (i.e. black-and-white panels read right to left.)

I found the work to be in the meaty middle among the vast Zombie subgenre – neither among the best nor the worst. What I think the book did well was set up stakes for intense action. They have to journey to the center of the world’s most populous city to the only un-Zombified people known to remain living. So, the stakes are the continued existence of our species. What the book doesn’t do so well is maintain pace and a clear narrative thread. Textless panels are used to make transitional jumps and it’s not clear to me that most readers will follow the flow smoothly.

If you enjoy Zombie stories and manga comics, you may want to look into this one. It has a video game like aesthetic and feel which may (or may not) appeal to gamers more than the average reader. If you find Zombies overplayed and are looking for only the best of the best in Zombie stories, you’re unlikely to find that here.

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BOOK REVIEW: Nightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn

Nightmare in SavannahNightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 9, 2021

Like New Orleans, Savannah is one of the few American cities that can pull off Old World occult-centered stories in a way that is on par with Prague or Budapest. While this is a fine story, I was underwhelmed at the degree to which it harnessed the promise of that setting. Mostly, the story plays out as teenage drama that could take place anywhere in America, with the novel addition of fairies [as opposed to the overplayed vampires or zombies.] I will say the book does a better job of getting mileage out of Fairy folklore than it does out of Savannah’s spook factor. These are not Peter Pan’s Fairies.

If you are looking for something akin to “Mean Girls” with less comedy, more angst, and a supernatural element, this book is definitely worth checking out. However, if the title “Nightmare in Savannah” has you expecting a deeply disturbing work of gothic horror, this is probably not the one for you.

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