Pandemonium

August 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

demonPandemonium by Daryl Gregory

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My first Daryl Gregory book was We Are All Completely Fine. By the time I got to the end of it, that’s pretty much what I thought of the book: just completely fine. It didn’t stand out to me or otherwise make that big of an impression on me. I went on to read Harrison Squared, though, since it was somewhat related to that novella, and man, did I enjoy the hell out of that book. It made me rethink Gregory all together.

In the world of Pandemonium, demon possession has been a thing since the 1950s. The demons jump from person to person, enough so that they become recognizable. There’s the Painter, the Captain, the Kamikaze, and more, including the Hellion, which possessed Del Pierce, our main character, twice in his youth. Del, however, is convinced his demon never left him, that it’s been penned up in his head since he was five years old. Now in his twenties, he’s ready for it to come out.

Pandemonium is a book that flows easily, keeping you reading long past the time you should have stopped. It’s a great example of how to tell a good story: it’s rich with detail without it overwhelming the story; it’s full of characters, complete with foibles, who are easy to like; and it has a plot that twists and turns and surprises without cheating the reader. It’s a book so well written that it’s impossible to see how he does it. With a bad book, you can see why it’s bad; with a good book, you’re so wrapped up in the story that you can’t bother to look for what makes it work so well.

This is an impressive book, more so when you realize this is Gregory’s first novel. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the premise, or anyone who like fiction a little offbeat, a little outside the norm. I see comparisons between Gregory and Philip K. Dick, and while I don’t exactly see it, I can see how Gregory’s characters pay homage to him (in more ways than the one obvious one in the story).

Started: July 31, 2018
Finished: August 9, 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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Come Closer

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

closerCome Closer by Sara Gran

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I’ve seen this novella described as literary horror, which is timely, since I just finished another novella that could be described as literary science fiction. In that review, I asked what made a story transcend genre to be considered literature, and I concluded that it has to do with how well the author depicts their main character with an everyperson quality. Gran doesn’t quite accomplish this here with her main character, Amanda, but she does capture the decline of a relationship as one person descends a downward spiral of madness.

Come Closer is about a woman, Amanda, who finds herself possessed by a demon. At first, it seems like Gran is using the possession to play with our expectations of the character. In the beginning, it’s easy to wonder if the possession is real or if it’s all in Amanda’s head, but as the story progresses, we realize that no, this is a genuine possession. By the end of the story, though, we’re left wondering again, though not in the way we might expect.

The story has a sense of inevitability about it, especially as you near the end of the book and realize there’s not much room left for Amanda to return from her possession. Things get worse and worse, and the story grows bleaker by the page, where you’re left wondering just how far Gran is going to take Amanda. The answer is “As far as she can.”

I enjoyed this book for its straightforward, no-nonsense style, which is steeped in doom but strangely lacking in atmosphere. Gran’s style makes the horrific stand out even more, like a blood spatter against a clean white sheet, and she excels at grabbing your attention without being graphic. This book is Good Horror, and anyone who wants a dark look into the human (or demon) psyche would be well advised to read it.

Started: July 21, 2018
Finished: July 23, 2018

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Into the Drowning Deep

July 31, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

deepInto the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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I’ve read a bunch of novellas by Grant/McGuire so far, but Into the Drowning Deep is the first novel of hers I’ve read. I had been looking forward to it, since I’ve liked her style, but felt like the novellas moved too quickly, or didn’t give enough attention to the character development. I chalked it up to the brevity of the format, and wanted to see what she could do with a full-length novel. Rolling in the Deep helped me move this up my list to read.

In a way, I was right, in that the novel starts out being almost exactly like the novella, just with more character and plot development. It’s definitely the same story (scientists and television producers go out to the Mariana Trench to discover if mermaids are real), but it uses different characters and goes into more depth with the cast and their trials. The good news is Grant’s characterization skills are top notch, as she draws out a cast of different characters who are all distinct and likeable (or unlikeable, as the case may be).

The thing is, there’s something about Grant’s style overall that feels a little flighty, giving the suggestion that we shouldn’t take the events too seriously. We should, because this is a straight-up horror novel set at sea, and it’s not that Grant’s style is irreverent, but it has a kind of casual feel that’s at odds with the tone of the story. It’s a characteristic I’m finding more often in more recent genre fiction, and I’m not quite used to it.

Aside from that, though, Into the Drowning Deep is a solid novel, in that it’s easily accessible, palpably tense, and populated with characters whose desires drive the plot. It doesn’t quite compare with the brilliance of her Wayward Children series, but it does show off Grant’s skills as a writer. One of these days I’ll commit to some of her longer series.

Started: June 24, 1028
Finished: July 15, 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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Messenger’s Legacy

July 27, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

legacyMessenger’s Legacy by Peter V. Brett

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Right as I was starting to read The Core, I discovered that Brett had another novella that fell between books three and four of his Demon Cycle. Since I was finishing out the series, I figured I needed to read it, too, but since I had already started The Core, I decided to wait to read this one. That was both a good idea and a bad idea.

It was a good idea, because I didn’t remember Briar from the previous books, and The Core helped jog my memory and let me know who he was. It was a bad idea, though, because by the time I finished this book, I knew what had happened to him when he was younger, albeit just in the broad sense. Messenger’s Legacy feels superfluous afterward, since all it does is flesh out the details. Had I read the book in its right place, it might have had a different effect on me, and it’s certainly not fair to judge the novella on my own failure to stick to the timeline, but it definitely makes a difference.

I don’t think the book is necessary to read if you’ve already finished the series, but if you’re reading the series fresh, make sure you drop this volume into its right place. It will be new to you there, and will set the ground for the character when he enters the story as a key player. Not having read it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Core, but it would have made a difference had I read it in its proper place in the chronology.

Started: July 14, 2018
Finished: July 14, 2018

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The Core

July 25, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

coreThe Core by Peter V. Brett

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It’s weird to think I’ve only been reading The Demon Cycle since 2013. It feels like it’s only been three years, tops, but by the time I got into it, The Daylight War had only just come out in paperback, and I had to wait for the last two books to come out along with everyone else. I hate waiting, but I also hate losing track of details from one book to the next.

The good news is that Brett does such an extraordinary job of building his world that it only took about 100 pages to be completely familiar with what had come before. Characters came back to me quickly, and as they did, so did their stories. The biggest struggle I had was remembering which events went with which book, but that didn’t affect the story, since that wasn’t relevant to the plot itself.

The book seems to polarize people, namely in how Brett brings the series to a close. More to the point, it’s in how long it takes to get there. Brett populated his saga with a ton of characters (not GRRM levels, but still one that might require a spreadsheet), and it seems like he was wanting to make sure each one got their own conclusion, so it takes well over half the book to get to the journey to the final confrontation, and then well over three quarters (maybe even seven-eighths) of the book to get to that confrontation. It then takes almost no time to get through it, which surprises me, for all the build-up Brett put into that moment.

So I’m at odds with the book, because it’s well written, strongly compelling, and vivid, but at the same time it’s a little rambling, and doesn’t bring a level of epic heroism to the conclusion that I expected after all this time. The series has such a strong start, and even as the story loses its focus in the last two books, it’s still readable. I mean, this is the longest book I’ve read this year, and it only took me two weeks to finish it. I feel like this is a three-star book, tops, but for all that Brett brought to the entire series, and how well he built this world, I’ll bump it up to four.

Started: July 1, 2018
Finished: July 14, 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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Rolling in the Deep

July 17, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

deepRolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

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I didn’t intend to read two McGuire books back-to-back like this; it’s just the way my reading list shook out. I like her style, so it’s not like I don’t want to read her stuff, but I usually try to space an author out more than this. Interestingly, I’ve read several of her novellas, but none of her novels as yet.

Rolling in the Deep is about an ocean expedition, ostensibly to discover mermaids, but funded by a network known more for its B-grade monster movies and questionable documentaries (think the SyFy Channel). The ship is filled with ship personnel, cameramen, hosts, scientists, and fake mermaids, so of course personalities clash, long before the secret of the mermaids is actually revealed. Characterization is Grant’s strongest skill, since she creates characters who you root for or against so strongly that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the story itself. I just wish there had been more to the story here.

A good three-quarters of the story is the setup, where we meet the characters, and then the last quarter of the story is a fast-moving conclusion where everyone dies (no spoilers there; this is noted in the first few pages of the story). There’s a lot of potential to the story, where characters could be heroes or villains once the chaos erupts, but it feels wasted as Grant rushes through the final act.

There’s a full-length novel that follows this story, and I’ll jump right into it next. I’m hoping the greater length will allow for a more measured conclusion, since I enjoy Grant’s style enough to want to keep reading her, even though I’ve only read one book that thrilled me (Down Among the Sticks and Bones). I’m looking forward to seeing what she can do with a full-length novel.

Started: June 18, 2018
Finished: June 23, 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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