Bad Brains

August 23, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

brainsBad Brains by Kathe Koja

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I really like Koja’s writing style. When I was younger, I didn’t think much of it, but on re-reading it, I find I can appreciate it a lot more. When so much of the older fiction I read is more tell than show, it’s nice to read a style where the narrative is almost entirely show. In the Abyss line, Koja and Kelley Wilde both refused to follow any standards, and their books are much more enjoyable for it.

That being said, Bad Brains is a pretty dull book. It starts off well, but it slowly becomes a story of the main character moving from place to place. The main character isn’t that likable, which I expected, but he’s somehow both less or a loser and more of a loser than the main character in The Cipher. The story is about Austen, an artist who falls and suffers a brain injury that causes him to see a shimmery silver color encroach on his vision. This has happened to him after his wife has left him, and after he has fallen into a depression that halts his artwork. Since this is a Koja novel, Austen is a bit of an outcast, but he starts off as someone more respectable than Nicholas, from The Cipher. Slowly, though, he falls further and further out of step, so while he starts off having accomplished more in his life, he winds up being more insufferable than Nicholas. Maybe it’s because he did make something of himself before his wife left him and he fell into the downward spiral of his infection.

Bad Brains reads well, and makes as strong of an impact as The Cipher did, but the story just isn’t that interesting. Her style was enough to keep me reading, but I wanted the story to be as good as her narrative. I’m hoping her later works will capture that same blending of prose and story like I found in The Cipher. This could be a case of the Sophomore Novel Syndrome.

Started: August 9, 2018
Finished: August 18, 2018

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Whipping Boy

August 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boyWhipping Boy by John Byrne

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In my experience, comic book writers don’t make the best novelists. M.R. Carey aside, their novels tend to be overly descriptive, making them overlong, and while they have a strong visual characteristic, the characterization tends to be lacking. Whipping Boy is no exception.

This is a long novel — nearly 500 pages of small type — and I feel like it could have been trimmed by at least 20% if Byrne had kept his descriptions under control. He also has a flair for the overdramatic: e.g., “From that awful, gaping, distended maw issued forth a cry that Clay Garber did not believe could have been equaled by the voices of a hundred souls pitched headlong into boiling tar.” It’s the kind of prose that makes you feel embarrassed for the writer.

The thing is, the story is fairly interesting, at least by way of its theme. The story is about Paul Trayne, a young boy who has the power to absorb the guilt, shame, and other negative feelings of people around him. The problem is that once he absorbs those feelings, the people are left with no moral compass, no way of knowing right from wrong. After unleashing his powers on a small town and leaving them in the chaos of not caring, he moves on to Chicago, where he plans to use his powers on a larger scale. It’s an intriguing premise, with an interesting theme, especially when, near the end of the story, Byrne has a character soliloquize internally about how it’s not the boy who did the terrible things, but the people. Sure, it’s a tired horror trope, but it’s effective.

The problem is Byrne doesn’t do anything with it but tell a story. He doesn’t capture the characters well enough for us to empathize with their dilemmas, instead presenting us with more and more graphic depictions of the horrible things people do to each other. We don’t get that unsettling feeling that, yes, we the readers could just as easily become the monsters if we were in the same situation. It feels emotionless and pointless.

The other issue is that Byrne doesn’t give us a compelling reason as to why Paul and his father are doing what they do. I think they’re just supposed to be evil (there’s a priest character who reinforces that idea), but it’s not enough to define their motivation, and it’s hard to feel engaged with their characters without it. Plus, in the final act of the novel, Paul’s character changes on us, and while Byrne explains why it changes, and it fits with the story, he doesn’t get us to feel it. As such, it feels flat and forced.

So, there’s potential here, but Byrne doesn’t bring it to fruition. For an Abyss book, it’s still a level above the other dreck they published (barring Tem and Koja), but it’s not so much that it stands among the best works from the line. It has too many cliches, it tells too much, and it doesn’t stick the landing well enough.

Started: July 17, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

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The Orpheus Process

July 30, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

orpehusThe Orpheus Process by Daniel H. Gower

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The Orpheus Process was lucky thirteen in the Dell/Abyss line of books, so of course it has to be a good one, right? It won’t be as bad as either of the Ron Dee books, right? I’m not just trying to pump myself up for reading another crappy horror novel, right?

Unfortunately, no. The Orpheus Process doesn’t delve as deeply into the pointlessness that Dusk, Obsessed, or Descent did, but it’s hardly a good book. It has a dry, unemotional style that feels very tell-y, while also having a melodramatic, over-the-top feel to how Gower tells the story. It’s filled with stilted dialogue and inconsistent characters who flip-flop on their decisions without much reason why. I pegged that much of it within the first fifty pages, but the rest of the book revealed bad science, gratuitous violence, and ridiculous plotting. The book is readable, and doesn’t tread the misogyny line as much as those other three books (though there is a heavy dose of sexism), but that’s about the best I can say for it.

This isn’t a book that makes me want to throw it into the fire, but neither is it a book I would ever want to re-read, nor is it one I would recommend. To paraphrase Eric Idle, this isn’t a book for reading; this is a book for laying down and avoiding. I have fond memories of this publishing line, but I should have remembered Sturgeon’s Law before attempting this reading project, as I have regrets.

Started: July 5, 2018
Finished: July 15, 2018

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Post Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror

July 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

mortemPost Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror, edited by Paul F. Olson & David B. Silva

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The next book in my Abyss project is Post Mortem, an anthology of short stories. I’m not particularly fond of anthologies. I’ll usually find a few gems, but, save for the rare exceptions like The Best of Pulphouse, I’ve never read an anthology where I find more good stories than bad ones. The good news is that ghost stories tend to work best as short stories, since they tend to leave off with the main character being haunted, and don’t need lengthy conclusions.

The opening story, “Each Night, Each Year” by Kathryn Ptacek, is the perfect opener, as it was evocative and personal. Gary Brandner’s “Mark of the Loser” follows, and it felt more gratuitous and pointless, and was too predictable. It didn’t leave me with the kind of feeling Ptacek’s story did, but it helped set the stage for what kinds of stories were to come.

Charles de Lint’s “Timeskip” feels a little forced at first, but when I looked back on it, I found it was organic. De Lint defines his world, populates it, and sets the rules, and then lets the story play out as it will. That it’s spooky is just the icing on the cake. Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem’s “Resettling” follows, and was, of course, top notch. They understand horror well, and balance personal relationships with ghosts remarkably well, and not just with this story.

“Servitor” by Janet Fox was a bit more on the gratuitous side, but was more thematic. Thomas Tessier’s “Blanca” was the same, though it’s more brooding and cultural. It reminded me somewhat of “Ma Qui” by Alan Brennert. “Nine Gables” by James Howard Kunstler was another story where personal relationships parallelled the haunting, but I didn’t find it to be as effective as the Tems’ story.

Charles L. Grant’s “The Last Cowboy Song” was the one I most wanted to read, and I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from being a quiet horror story, it was more about the positivity of ghosts, instead of about being haunted. It runs counter to “The Ring of Truth” by Thomas F. Monteleone, where the ghosts are hunters with a vengeance.

“Eyes of the Swordmaker” by Gordon Linzer was the outcast of the book, for being set in ancient Japan, and for being the most evocative of all the stories. It’s genuinely spooky, and it makes the hauting a personal choice. This might be my favorite of them all. Ramsey Campbell’s “The Guide”, on the other hand, just doesn’t make sense to me. I feel like I should appreciate Campbell more, but I never can figure out what’s happening in his stories, or what’s supposed to make them frightening.

P.W. Sinclair’s “Getting Back” was decent, but nothing spectacular. The same could be said about “Walkie-Talkie” by Donald R. Burleson, “Major Prevue Here Tonight” by William F. Nolan, and “Brothers” by David B. Silva, which is a shame, since these stories made up a large part of the end of the book. Melissa Mia Hall’s “The Brush of Soft Wings” was a nice, moody respite, and the final story, Robert R. McCammon’s “Haunted World”, is a vivid, concerning story, even if it’s not really about being haunted. I remember this story from the first time I read this anthology, and I think it also showed up in Blue World.

The book concludes with an essay by Dean Koontz about ghosts, which is a shame, since I don’t consider Koontz to be an authority on horror. Yes, I know he got famous for writing it, but his horror fiction has never scared me, and never made much sense to me. He’s a fine enough writer, but horror? Please. He’s more a suspense writer than anything. I guess they couldn’t get Stephen King to write it.

Post Mortem bucks the trend for me by being an anthology with more good stories than bad. Plus, considering how bad some of the other Abyss books are, the book also stands out for being one of the better books from the line. Overall, I’d recommend it to readers who like decent ghost stories, though it’s still a bit of a mixed bag.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 29, 2018

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Shadow Twin

July 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

twinShadow Twin by Dale Hoover

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For those keeping track, this is book eleven of my Abyss reading project. It’s also the eighth book that wasn’t completely worthless, but neither does it crack the top three. It’s a solidly mediocre book, and is ultimately forgettable.

The book started out well, with good prose and a strong start. It begged comparison to Koja’s The Cipher, since, like that book, Shadow Twin is about a mysterious hole that opens inside a house, but that’s the only thing similar to the two novels. Where Koja focuses on the two main characters and their obsessions and isolation, Hoover focuses in on the family and their inherent problems, projecting and enhancing them via the hole. I can relate better to Shadow Twin, but it’s not enough to make it the better book of the two.

Hoover doesn’t write like a typical ’90s horror author, with lurid violence and rampant sexism and misogyny. That’s definitely a plus, but she doesn’t capture her characters well, and her narrative rambles at time. It’s written in the first person, as a reflective look back on the main character’s decline, but she shifts to a third-person omniscient viewpoint at times, and makes too many references to the horrible things he is yet to do. It’s annoying, and doesn’t do much for foreshadowing since she keeps repeating that refrain, either at the beginning or end of her chapters.

Shadow Twin is a book that’s well written, but the story and plot aren’t that great. I prefer it to some of the other dreck that preceded it in the Abyss line, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Started: May 29, 2018
Finished: June 13, 2018

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Mastery

June 20, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

masteryMastery by Kelley Wilde

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Moving along in my Abyss reading project, Mastery is the next book in publication order. This is also a re-read for me, and I remember a handful of things about the book, but what stands out the most is Wilde’s obsession with lavender in this story. He uses it as an adjective to describe things like sounds and smells. I’m not even sure this is supposed to reference the color.

Wilde is a poetic writer, enough so that when I was thinking back to Kathe Koja’s unusual style, what I was actually remembering was Wilde’s style. He doesn’t paint a perfect picture with his prose; instead, he describes it more abstractly, making you pay closer attention to what he’s writing. The good thing is the style means he shows more than he tells, which is a nice alternative to some of the books I’ve been reading lately.

I’m a function-over-form reader, so I expected to be more frustrated with Mastery than I was. Maybe it was because it was in the middle of some other poorly-written books in the line, but I found myself enjoying it. It wasn’t easy getting into it, but I did end up hooked, and was interested in seeing how it played out. It’s a werewolf/vampire story (it feels more like the former, but other readers consider it to be the latter), set amidst a time-travel story set in early 20th-Century San Francisco, but it seems inconsequential against Wilde’s style, which is the real star of the book. It’s not the tightest book I’ve read, but I enjoyed Wilde’s imagery and themes enough to make it a solid middle-of-the-road book.

I would recommend Mastery, but with hesitation. Horror readers would probably get the most out of it, but readers who like stories that are told non-traditionally might enjoy it, too. I don’t think readers of Faulkner or Joyce would like the story that much, but Wilde’s style reminds me more of their styles than, say, Stephen King’s.

Started: April 17, 2018
Finished: May 5, 2018

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