Deathgrip

September 26, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

gripDeathgrip by Brian Hodge

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Paul Handler, a DJ in St. Louis, learns that he has the ability to heal people after witnessing a horrible act of violence on a remote broadcast. After discreetly performing healings all over St. Louis, he discovers that his gift has a dark side, as random moments of anger reveal that he can also do harm to people. Struggling with the morality of such an ability, he seeks out the advice of a faith healer to help him manage what he can do. Instead, he finds a hidden cabal that has been looking for someone like Paul for a long time.

Like Hodge’s other works, Deathgrip shines due to its characterization. He creates believable characters (though the antagonist here is a little overblown), and it helps keep the reader moving along. That’s good, because Deathgrip doesn’t have the punch of Nightlife or other works of his.

The story feels a little disjointed, partly because Hodge has his main character give up one life to pursue another. By the time we’re invested in the first life, we’re uprooted and taken to the next one, with all previous characters dropped and forgotten for the new ones. If that were the point of the novel, it might have been easier to accept, but the point is Paul’s abilities, and it didn’t feel like a natural progression of the plot.

It also doesn’t help that Hodge creates a lengthy backstory to explain why Paul has these healing abilities. To his credit, Hodge doesn’t make it an info-dump, but breaks it apart over parts of the book so we’re not taken too far out of Paul’s life to see what happens. Instead, though, the explanation doesn’t seem necessary. That Paul has the ability seems to be reason enough, but without that, then the character of Gabe doesn’t make much sense. Besides all that, the explanation doesn’t feel sufficient. It works well enough, but it’s not like it’s some clever revelation that will amaze the readers; it just feels pedestrian.

I like Hodge well enough, and I think his style is natural and compelling, but Deathgrip doesn’t have a lot of OOMPH behind it. For an Abyss book, it’s above average, but it doesn’t have the same kind of profound effect Tem, Koja, or even Tuttle bring to the imprint. Deathgrip just feels like a trunk book, which is even more unfortunate when you realize this is his fourth novel.

Started: August 31, 2018
Finished: September 23, 2018

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The Walking Dead: New World Order

September 21, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

orderThe Walking Dead: New World Order by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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I’ve said before that Kirkman manages to keep The Walking Dead a fresh exercise in survival and morality, but I also recognize that there’s going to come a time when it feels like he’s stuck in a rut. That comes to a head in New World Order, where he creates a new antagonist who doesn’t feel so much like an individual as he does a mesh of the Governor and Negan. I get it: Rick needs to continue being the moral reflection of the power-hungry, but there are only so many ways one can characterize those characters.

The good thing is that I’ve said something similar about other collections, and Kirkman still manages to make something distinct and effective come out of the story by the end. My biggest concern now is that he’s borrowing from earlier characters instead of creating a new one. I’ll wait it out and see what he does with it, though. Y’all know I’ve come too far now to give up on the story.

Started: September 17, 2018
Finished: September 17, 2018

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Gorilla in My Room

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

gorillaGorilla in My Room by Jack Ketchum

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January 24th of this year was a sad day. It was the day Jack Ketchum died. I didn’t get caught up with his novels until a few years ago, and I found so much thoughtful and meaningful (and also brutal and violent) fiction there, I knew I would read anything he wrote. I had pre-ordered this collection in late 2017, but it took me several months to get around to reading it.

The collection opens with “Gorilla in My Room”, an ultra-short story (less than one page) where Ketchum uses a gorilla living in his room as a metaphor for life. It definitely fits the thoughtful and meaningful categories of his fiction, and it hints at the brutal and violent categories, as well.

“The Western Dead” follows, and it’s a story about zombies set in the old west. It’s an interesting idea (Ketchum notes in his afterword that he wrote the story as part of an anthology that sought to place the origin of zombies far back in the past), and it makes me wonder why we don’t see more zombie stories set in older eras. Are zombies intended to be a modern construct? Regardless, this is a characteristic Ketchum story with the concise prose and disturbing imagery.

Next is “Bully”, and now we’re getting into the usual Ketchum storytelling. It’s about a man who stands up to his abusive father, years after having grown up out from under his shadow. This is a compelling story, made original by the way Ketchum writes it.

“Listen” is a story that covers usual territory for Ketchum – pedophilia. In this story, it’s narrated by one, and he’s tracking down his survivors, hoping to get them to kill him. In the usual Ketchum-revenge style, he doesn’t quite get what he wants.

“Polaroids” is another ultra short, which reminds me of Richard Matheson’s “The Near Departed”. It packs the same kind of queasy punch, but with much more economy.

Edward Lee’s introduction to the collection made me expect “Squirrely Shirley” to be funny, but the events of the story were too horrifying for me to find the humor in it. I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that the kind of horror I like is more subtle and suggestive than what’s usually on offer in the genre, but I still like Ketchum in general. This one just didn’t do much for me.

In “Group of Thirty”, Ketchum imagines what it’s like to finally meet the people who don’t like his fiction. The main character is a thinly-veiled version of Ketchum himself, and he comes up with a good way for him to get out of it.

“Winter Child” is a prequel to Offspring, which just isn’t a favorite of mine. I get that cannibals are horrifying, but when that’s the whole source of the horror and the story, it loses its effect. Here, Ketchum gives us a different perspective on the theme, which helps make the story more relatable. For one thing, the story isn’t just about the cannibalism.

“Cow” is another story set in the Dead River series, and this one is a sequel to The Woman. That story was good, since it showed how much more horrible regular people are from the cannibals, but Ketchum flips the script again and makes it about the cannibalism and the survival. It’s engaging, but doesn’t have the same effect as The Woman.

Ketchum writes a parable with “The Transformed Mouse”, which is interesting, since it doesn’t quite follow his usual type of story. It does make a cool point, though, and it’s written in the lean style Ketchum is known for.

“The Right Thing” is another ultra-short story, about a couple getting rid of a child to keep a pet. It’s an interesting take on the usual “get rid of the pet for the child” dilemma, but probably resonates more with people who actually have kids.

Ketchum returns to pedophilia with “Awake”, an okay story about an aging jazz musician who rapes his daughter. He ends the story in his usual fashion, in grisly revenge.

“That Moment” is an uber-story story (story starter, really; it’s two sentences) about the death of a pet. Ketchum packs a lot of punch in such few words.

“Oldies” is horrific in a different way, as it’s a story told from the perspective of an Alzheimer patient. It’s not graphic or gruesome, but it’s an accurate look at how it is for someone suffering from dementia to deal with the rest of the world.

The collection concludes with “Seconds”, a story about a woman who stops aging after her abusive husband dies. She finally meets someone who cares for her when she’s over seventy years old, but still looks like she’s in her early thirties, and the story goes from there. On the one hand, it’s a poignant story, but on the other, her not aging seems more like a reward for the person who cares for her than one for her. It’s odd, but it’s a different sort of story for Ketchum, which highlights his skills with tenderness.

Most collections I read are hit-and-miss, but this one has more hits than I usually find. It helps that I like Ketchum’s fiction as much as I do, but his style reflects the styles I’m used to from the horror fiction I read in the ’80s. It felt like the stories I remember, and that definitely played a part into how much I liked the collection overall.

Started: September 9, 2018
Finished: September 10, 2018

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Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-suckers

September 13, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

cosmicBubba and the Cosmic Blood-suckers by Joe R. Lansdale

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So, here’s an interesting thing: The “Bubba” in Bubba Ho-Tep was Elvis. I had always taken the title to be a reference to the mummy, since it was set in Texas, but since said mummy makes zero appearances in this novel, and another character calls Elvis “Bubba” at one point, I was proven wrong. It makes me wonder what else I’ve taken for granted all these years.

As it turns out, there was a good bit I had taken for granted. In Bubba Ho-Tep, you never get a sense that the narrator is unreliable, so you’re pretty convinced the main character is, in fact, Elvis, but there’s a lingering doubt that he’s just some crazy dude with a strange fantasy. That carries over to JFK, too, more prominently since Elvis himself never quite believes that he’s actually JFK. This novel confirms that both claims are true, which somehow lessens the impact of the original story. It takes that uncertainty and makes it fact, which removes the ambiguity that makes the novella work so well.

The other thing about the novel is that it was just too ridiculous. Yes, yes, Elvis and JFK, in an East Texas nursing home battling an Egyptian mummy, isn’t exactly mainstream, but somehow it worked better than Elvis and the Colonel heading up what amounts to a Scooby Doo gang. Plus, the more the story continued, the less I could hang on to the whole Elvis connection. He sounded and felt like any other character, and when it came back to me that this was supposed to be Elvis, I almost started laughing.

I mean, Lansdale is Lansdale, and reading him is like reading no other author, but even that seemed to be lacking. I find that his supernatural stories don’t have the same kind of brusque charm that his crime novels do, and that’s much more evident when you compare this with, say, Rusty Puppy. They both have the snappy dialogue and the unique characters, but the plot for Blood-suckers isn’t as strong as Rusty Puppy, and the story overall suffers for it.

Look, I’ll read anything Joe Lansdale releases, without hesitation. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a book of his that I didn’t like on some level, but Blood-suckers feels like it’s coming from the bottom of the barrel. It’s about on par with Lost Echoes, my least favorite Lansdale book, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence it’s also a supernatural novel. On the bright side, I’ll be getting around to Jackrabbit Smile soon, so hopefully my experience will improve.

Started: September 6, 2018
Finished: September 9, 2018

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Bubba Ho-Tep

September 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

bubbaBubba Ho-Tep by Joe R. Lansdale

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Years ago, I was listening to a radio interview with Bruce Campbell, and I remember him talking about his upcoming movie. He said he played an aging Elvis, living in a nursing home and fighting off a mummy with the help of someone who believed he was JFK, played by Ossie Davis. I remember thinking, I’ve read this story, and sure enough, when he mentioned the title later in the interview, it was Bubba Ho-Tep.

I re-read the story because I wanted to have it fresh in my mind before reading its prequel, Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-suckers. It turns out that, between the story and the movie, I remember every single thing about this story. I mean, with a premise like that above, it’s hard to forget, but I remember more details about this story than most other stories I last read about twenty years ago.

Bubba Ho-Tep is a tight story, and it shines thanks to Lansdale’s usual witty narrative. He’s cruder in this story than I recall, but maybe he was just channeling an older, frustrated Elvis. His focus is really on the character of Elvis, so the peripheral characters get some short shrift (the nurse especially needed more attention, which she deservedly received in the movie adaptation), and the ending comes along much more quickly than one would expect. Still, it’s Elvis, mummies, a black JFK, and Lansdale. This story is definitely going to be a winner.

Started: September 6, 2018
Finished: September 6, 2018

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A Little Gray Book of Shadows

September 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

shadowsA Little Gray Book of Shadows by William F. Nolan

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I found out about Borderlands Press’s Little Book series way too late to get in on a full collection, but they’ve published some short story collections by some pretty heavy hitters, including Laird Barron, Joe Hill, Joe Lansdale, and Neil Gaiman. When the publisher announced their newest wave of Little Books, they hinted at getting one from Stephen King, so of course I jumped on the chance to get a set. A Little Gray Book of Shadows is the first in this latest line of collections, and it contains seven stories by the writer best known for co-writing Logan’s Run.

The first story, “Saturday’s Shadow”, was a little puzzling to me. It’s a story about obsessions, tied in with movies, but it was hard to say whose obsession this was, since the narrator is unreliable. He described the hallucinations as someone else’s, but it’s clear the narrator is unhinged, too. It didn’t do much for me, and it didn’t help that the style used a lot of parenthetical asides that threw off the pace of the narrative.

“Vympyre” follows, and is more a prose poem than an actual story. It’s about a vampire’s “life” passing before his eyes as he dies a true death, and he reflects back on all the history he’s seen during his existence. It’s fine, but it’s nothing spectacular.

The next story, “Lonely Train A’Comin'”, is a more traditional story, and starts out strong. He captures the emotion of a character whose sister has gone missing, and is grieving her loss. The story peters out toward the end, and rushes to a conclusion that’s not all that satisfying, but given how well Nolan captured his main character at the beginning of the story, it’s well worth the read.

Next is “The Partnership”, an odd story that, honestly, feels pretty pointless. It’s grisly and disturbing, but not for any particular reason. It’s not splatterpunk, but neither is it a subtle take on the genre that will settle with you long after you finish the story. It’s just kind of blah.

“The Yard” is the next story, and is fairly forgettable. I read it just last night, and had to struggle to remember the details just to write this review. If this had any point of meaning beyond just being a horror story, it went over my head.

Then there’s “Dead Call”, which is about a character receiving a call from a friend who died the previous week. It’s not an original premise, but what Nolan does with the idea is actually interesting. It doesn’t have a strong finish, but it’s a short, shocking story that manages to get under your skin without any violence or gore.

“Alex” concludes the collection, and is the only original story of the seven. It’s a strange story, because it’s either an homage to Stephen King, or a fictional gripe against the author’s success. The tone doesn’t make it clear, so it’s hard to tell what point Nolan was trying to make with the story.

Like any short story collection, Shadows has its hits and misses. For the most part, I’m not the audience for short stories, but I do appreciate a good, effective story when it packs the right punch. This collection just doesn’t hit that mark for me, but Nolan is a well-respected author, and the reprints were taken from well-regarded anthologies. I’m perfectly willing to admit that it’s just me.

Started: September 4, 2018
Finished: September 5, 2018

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Serafina and the Black Cloak

September 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

serafinaSerafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

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I lived in and around Asheville, NC for several years in my twenties, so when I first heard about Serafina and the Black Cloak, I figured it would be a matter of time before I read it. Set at the Biltmore Estate during the turn of the century and having a supernatural angle, the story seemed like it would hit all of my interests, and I was surprised it took me a few years to get to it. I think I could have waited a lot longer and it wouldn’t have bothered me.

The book isn’t bad, necessarily — it flows well, and has compelling characters — but it feels clunky. It’s clearly a juvenile book, since it lacks some subtlety in its storytelling. The characters and themes are drawn with broad strokes, and the plot feels more like it’s just loping along from one point to another instead of feeling developed and fleshed out. Plus, the big secret about Serafina becomes obvious at about the quarter-length point of the book, but Beatty doesn’t come out and tell us directly about it until near the end. I’ve heard “But it’s a kids’ book” as a defense, but it’s hard to claim that anymore, when the Harry Potter series raised the bar for how complex and subtle a juvenile book can be.

Beatty’s narrative is also a bit awkward in places, particularly in his similes. When he goes with the story and lets the plot unfold on its own, it’s fine, but then he throws in something like “Her corset felt like Satan’s bony hand…”, and the whole thing falls apart. I think authors are trying so hard not to write cliches that they come up with something so ridiculous that it doesn’t make sense, and pulls the reader right out of the story. Nick Cutter’s The Troop was another story that did that, though admittedly, Black Cloak isn’t that bad.

Serafina and the Black Cloak is the first in a trilogy, and while I enjoyed how Beatty wrapped up the characters in this story, I don’t feel the need to read the rest of the series. For one, now that Serafina’s secret (such as it is) has been revealed, that mystery won’t carry the story any more. For another, the story simply doesn’t wow me enough to make me want to continue. I’m somewhat curious to see how some of the relationships develop over the series, but I’d be satisfied just to read a summary of the next two books to see how they’re resolved.

Started: August 27, 2018
Finished: August 29, 2018

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Lost Futures

September 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

futuresLost Futures by Lisa Tuttle

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Lost Futures is the sixteenth book in the Abyss imprint, and is one I recall as being one of my favorites back when I read them in the early 1990s. I was so excited to re-read it, even as I had a feeling I was carrying too much nostalgia for the book, and was setting myself up for disappointment. I’m happy to say that I came out of this thinking that it was still a solid, effective read.

This is a book about choices: the permanent, irrevocable choices of our past and how they affect our future. Claire, the main character, is living a lackluster life, one filled with a brother who died due in part to her neglect when she was younger, a string of ex-boyfriends who either left or were pushed away, and a job that pays the bills, but doesn’t excite her. When she starts getting glimpses of other versions of her life, where she made different choices, she begins thinking of them as alternate universes based on quantum physics. In short, whenever a choice is made, the universe splits to accomodate realities where one choice was made, and another for a different choice. It’s the Schroedinger’s Cat thought experiment, on a grander scale.

So, Lost Futures is more science fiction than one would expect from the Abyss imprint, but it’s still horror, because Tuttle looks at the realization that our past is fixed, no matter what. We can struggle with the agony of missed chances or poor choices, but eventually we have to come to terms with our choices instead of dwelling on what could have been. Plus, as the story progresses, we start to wonder which personality is reality, and whether or not what Claire is experiencing is real, or all in her mind. Tuttle plays with that convention very well.

Things happen quickly in the book. The idea of alternate universes is revealed in chapter two, so the story isn’t about working up to that reveal; instead, we’re looking at Claire’s self-examination for much of the story. Early on, Tuttle creates a strong friendship between Claire and Sophie, an old college roommate, but she drops that thread by the end of the book, which I feel is a disservice to that relationship. Aside from being a positive representation of female friendships, Tuttle has Claire focus instead on the man with whom she wants to have a relationship. Even though we only have a brief glimpse at that character, the relationship between Claire and Sophie felt stronger, more significant, and should have been revisited.

Lost Futures is a thoughtful book, and is a good representation of what the Abyss imprint was trying to do: focusing on internal horror instead of demons and other ghoulies. It appears to have gained a cult status since its first publication, and was even nominated for a couple of literary awards the year it was released. I’m pleased to see that it holds up as well as it did the first time I read it, nearly twenty years ago.

Started: August 21, 2018
Finished: August 26, 2018

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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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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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