Black Helicopters

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

helicoptersBlack Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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For years, I had written off Kiernan for being a little too loosey-goosey in her style, for having a bit more form than function. Last year’s Agents of Dreamland surprised me, though, enough for me to pre-order Black Helicopters, which I took to be a continuation of that story. It is and it isn’t, though; it’s an expanded revision of a story originally published only in a limited release through Subterranean Press which loosely ties in to Agents of Dreamland. In a way, that’s good, since it means readers can find an affordable copy of the book; on the other hand, it isn’t really a part of a series as much as it’s in the same universe.

The story has a Lovecraftian bent to it, like Agents did, but it’s buried beneath another story that jumps through time and isn’t easy to follow. It doesn’t help that one entire chapter is written mostly in French, and it further doesn’t help to discover after I had done all the impromptu translations through my Kindle that the chapter is reproduced in an appendix, fully translated. In short, Kiernan doesn’t make this story approachable, which doesn’t surprise me, but it does disappoint me that it wasn’t as straightforward as Agents.

I won’t give up on Kiernan, since I enjoyed Agents as much as I did, but I’m a little more hesitant to pick up anything she writes. I’ll be more selective in picking up my next book of hers to read. I do think readers who like thoughtful, Lovecraftian fiction (Thomas Ligotti comes to mind) might like this book better than I did.

Started: May 13, 2018
Finished: May 28, 2018

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I Call Upon Thee

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

theeI Call Upon Thee by Ania Ahlborn

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I stumbled across Ahlborn last year, and was pleasantly surprised with her command of atmosphere, and her ability to tell a creepy tale. I Call Upon Thee is her latest novella, and I’m pleased to say that nothing has changed in that respect. This is a dark, creepy tale of dysfunctional families, sibling bonds and rivalries, and possession.

When Maggie left home three years ago, it was partly to escape her family, and partly to escape something she brought home from the cemetery when she was twelve years old. When tragedy strikes the family, she’s forced to return home, convincing herself on the way that what she remembers from the cemetery could only be in her head. When her headaches inexplicably return and she starts seeing shadows moving along the hallway, she realizes that she’s come home just in time, to face off with whatever it was she left behind when she left home.

Like Ahlborn’s other books, the story here isn’t particularly original, but the way Ahlborn tells it is. She captures the characters, and the dysfunction that exists between them, so well that it’s hard to care that you’ve read a variation of this story before. Stephen King may have said “It is the tale, not he who tells it”, but I disagree. Ahlborn’s tales shine because she’s the one telling them. Another writer could tell this same story and not have it sing like this one does.

The story is told partly in the current time, partly through flashbacks, which works well with this kind of story, since Ahlborn teases the details of the story out through the reminiscing. We know something terrible happened to Maggie, but not what until we encounter that part of her childhood. I was distracted, though, by the font change that occurred when the story went into flashback. It was clear from the story when the shift took place, so the font change was unnecessary. It seems like an odd choice, either by the author or the publisher.

It’s funny, though, that this book is considered a novella. It’s twice as long as The Pretty Ones, the novella that turned me on to Ahlborn, and a few pages longer than the other two books of hers I’ve read. I’ve grumbled before about the weird distinction of novella versus novel, and how it’s an ambiguous demarcation that seems to be up to the publishers to define, and I’ll keep doing it until I get a proper answer.

Modern horror has become synonymous with surreal, bizarre, and nihilist, so it’s nice that Ahlborn is writing more classic horror, with strong characterization and a straightforward plot. Horror readers who haven’t discovered her are missing out, and her novellas are a great place to start. Short, sharp, and effective, they’ll prepare you for her novels, which pack quite a punch.

Started: May 2, 2018
Finished: May 3, 2018

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Blanky

June 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

blankyBlanky by Kealan Patrick Burke

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The start of this novella is fantastic. It captures the grief of the main character, Steve, who has recently lost his 11-month-old daughter to SIDS, and whose wife has left him to come to terms with her own grief. We see his own struggle to return to some semblance of life, alone, without support. It’s heart-breaking. This is only the start of the horror, though, which involves the return of Blanky, the blanket that may have caused his daughter’s death, and that he presumed was buried with his daughter.

To say more would spoil it, but rest assured the story is vivid, atmospheric, creepy, and truly disturbing. Burke’s imagery is effective and horrific, but it’s the situation Steve finds himself in — and how it affects his tenuous sanity — that lingers. He captures emotion well in this story, and that alone is enough to recommend it to fans of horror.

I’m not as sold on the ending, though. It’s intended to be ambiguous (the final chapter is supposed to leave the reader wondering which version of this story is actually true), but it’s more Life of Pi, less “The Lottery” in how Burke sells it to the reader. As it is, the ending feels like a cop-out, like he’s pulling the rug out from under us. There aren’t any hints left in the story for us to contemplate, save for the final one which suggests Steve’s version of events is the real one.

Regardless, Burke is a writer to read. His storytelling skills shine, and the way he can build up a scene and its dread is something I haven’t seen in a while. Readers of horror would probably like it best, but anyone who wants to see talent would do well to read Blanky.

Started: April 26, 2018
Finished: April 26, 2018

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The Atrocities

June 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

atrocitiesThe Atrocities by James C. Shipp

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Shipp is a new writer for me. I heard some fantastic buzz surrounding this novella before its release, enough to convince me to give it a try. As I started it, I wondered if I had stumbled across a splatterpunk revival. Its opening sentence, after all, is “Turn left at the screaming woman with the collapsing face”, followed by “turn right at the woman sliced into twelve pieces”. These are the titular atrocities, statues based on Biblical stories hidden throughout a hedge maze that must be traversed before reaching Stockton House.

The house is where the main character arrives to work as a governess instructing the owners’ daughter. The only problem with that is the daughter is dead, and only the mother seems able to see her. The governess is a no-nonsense type, ready to quit over the impossibility of her task, but her curiosity and willingness to help override her feeling of futility, and she strives to unravel the mystery of the house.

Shipp is a promising writer. His imagery is vivid and shocking, but it’s not necessarily disturbing, partly because it doesn’t linger. There are definitely memorable bits and pieces of the story, but the scenes that feel like they’re supposed to be the disturbing ones don’t have much effect beyond that first quesy feeling. In a way, it reminds me a bit of splatterpunk, but only in the same way that Joe Lansdale is sometimes shoehorned into that genre: There’s just something about their writing style that’s hyper-descriptive but not always disturbing.

The ending of The Atrocities left me wanting more (almost literally; it felt like the story needed more time to bounce back from its sudden ending and give us more detail on how it wrapped up), but the prose and the setup were effective enough to get my attention. I didn’t immediately add Shipp’s other works to my to-read pile, but he’s definitely a writer now on my radar.

Started: April 22, 2018
Finished: April 22, 2018

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Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva

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

bigfootBigfoot and the Bodhisattva by James Morrow

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I go into some of Morrow’s works knowing I’m not going to get all of it, but most of this short story (novella?) went over my head. The story is pretty much what you would expect based on the title — Bigfoot decides to find more meaning in his life by pursuing Buddhism. His friend the Dalai Lama gives him certain tasks to complete to raise his consciousness, but he’s still Bigfoot, so that goes about as well as one would expect.

The story has the sense of humor, depth, and wisdom one would expect if you’re already familiar with Morrow’s work. I just don’t have much interest in Buddhism for it to keep my interest, and I found myself glazing over long portions of the story. Maybe that’s Morrow’s point, that Buddhism won’t work for people who don’t accept it, but it felt like a much longer work than it was (43 pages) because I kept checking out.

This might be best read by people who have an understanding of Buddhism, as they may better appreciate the disconnect between the meditative practices and a Bigfoot attempting to follow them. Me, I was looking for something closer to Shambling Towards Hiroshima or The Madonna and the Starship, where I better understood the satire because I understood the real world events that carried the satire.

Started: April 15, 2018
Finished: April 16, 2018

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Widow’s Point

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

point

Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar & Billy Chizmar

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The “found footage” horror story has been done to death. I saw The Blair Witch Project in the theaters twenty-nine years ago, and even then, it wasn’t an original idea. I get that writers like to go back and do their own version of their own genre’s tropes, but where some authors can make the story original enough off of style alone (Stephen King’s “1408”, for example), the Chizmars can’t quite give this story the depth or presentation Widow’s Point needs to make it stand above the other examples.

The story is about an author, Thomas Livingston, who writes nonfiction books about the supernatural, and arranges to spend the weekend in a lighthouse with a checkered history. The site of suicides and murders, the lighthouse has been fenced off for years, since even trespassers have a habit of ending up dead. Livingston, looking for his next bestseller, and against the advice of the owner of the property, moves in to record his experiences on camera and audio. The story is told through those notes, which, of course, are the only things recovered from the lighthouse at the end of the weekend.

Widow’s Point has some effective scenes, both in imagery and atmosphere, since the Chizmars are going more to unsettle than to scare. Some of the details from the story will stay with me, but I can’t say that the characters will. Thomas is an unlikable character (he’s intended to be so), so the events feel somewhat removed, so I can recognize the effectiveness of the events, but not the effectiveness of the story. We learn the history of the lighthouse through Thomas’ residency, and it’s interesting, but without that connection through the character, the story reads more like a “nonfiction” account rather than a ghost story. Maybe that’s intentional. Regardless, the story remains a little flat.

This novella was published by Cemetery Dance, Richard Chizmar’s own publishing house, and he’s described as a “NYT Bestselling Author” in the blurb. While technically true, it seems disingenous not to note that he received that accolade for being the coauthor of a Stephen “The Reason Why ANY Co-Author Would Be a NYT Bestselling Author” King novella. Either way, this novella feels like it’s been self-published, and that Billy is Richard’s son, this feels way more self-promotional than I like. I’m still looking forward to A Long December, though.

Started: April 8, 2018
Finished: April 8, 2018

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Mandelbrot the Magnificent

May 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Mandelbrot RD4 BLACKMandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska

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What a moving story. It’s semi-biographical, drawing inspiration from the life of Benoit Mandelbrot, who grew up as a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France. Ziemska uses as many real details of his life as possible, but also introduces a magical aspect to the story through Mandelbrot’s understanding of mathematics and the Sefirot, an important piece of the Jewish religion.

The story is by turns heartbreaking and inspiring, lyrical and haunting. It’s about mathematics, yes, but it’s also about loneliness, identity, and safety, which is important considering its setting. It also has some effective prose, like this:

“‘God?’ I asked.
“Father shrugged. ‘That’s a simple word used by those who would be terrified if they knew the whole story.'”

The story is a novella, meaning you can read it in one sitting, likely in just an hour or two. Do so. It’s well worth your time.

Started: March 22, 2018
Finished: March 22, 2018

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The Only Harmless Great Thing

May 4, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Only Harmless Great Thing RD3The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

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I’m a bit of a sucker for a Tor.com novella. For a while there, I was trying to read all of them, but they’ve released so many of them over the past few years that it’s hard to keep up with them all. I hold out for the ones that get the most buzz, and The Only Harmless Great Thing is one of those novellas.

It’s an odd book, because it takes two historical events — the Radium Girls and the electrocution of Topsy the elephant — and mashes them together. It works remarkably well, but in order to put the two events together, it means that Bolander has the elephants replace the Radium Girls in the factories. It struck me as very odd, and I had a hard time accepting that elephants, of all creatures, would do this kind of work. Bolander makes the elephants intelligent enough for sentience and communication (they communicate with humans through a rudimentary sign language), but still, it was a little too strange for me to accept.

Beyond that, though, the story is excellent. Bolander has a lyrical style that makes the words leap off the page, and she brings amazing life to her characters (human and otherwise), and she makes the reader feel for all of them. It helps that she brings together two tragic stories, predisposing us to be sympathetic to them, but her language makes everything more vivid. Bolander juggles three different stories, in three different timelines, and while one of them felt a little out of place, it served a purpose to the other two.

The buzz this novella is getting is deserved. It’s a well-written story, with realistic characters, and real emotion. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes speculative fiction, or even historical fiction. It’s just going to require a leap of faith with how the author uses the elephants here.

Started: March 3, 2018
Finished: March 3, 2018

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The Process (Is a Process All Its Own)

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

processThe Process (Is a Process All Its Own) by Peter Straub

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I’m not one for including a bunch of images with my reviews, but this was my feeling upon finishing this story:

dafuq

It has themes of people growing at a faster-than-normal rate, as well as people not staying dead, but the story was also about Henry James, and I couldn’t tie it all together. I’m willing to admit that it went over my head (Straub is far more literary than my usual reading fare), but the story just didn’t gel for me.

I haven’t read as much of Straub’s later works, so I don’t know if this literary angle is his new normal, but my favorite works of his are Ghost Story and Shadowland, so I was disappointed that it only had a few scenes that reminded me of how good those stories were. The Process is more puzzling than anything else.

If anyone has some insights into this novella, even if it’s just that I need to read A Dark Matter to get the full context of this story, I would appreciate them. As of now, the story just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Started: December 26, 2017
Finished: December 26, 2017

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Darkness Whispers

March 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

darknessDarkness Whispers by Richard Chizmar & Brian James Freeman

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Darkness Whispers is actually a collection of short stories than an actual novella. The title story is novella-length, written by both authors, while the collection also features one story written solo by each author. Like most collections, it’s a mixed bag of quality.

The title novella is about a mysterious man who comes to town and wreaks havoc by granting some residents their heart’s desire, and others their worst nightmare. It sounds a lot like Needful Things to me, but where King’s book followed his formula of likable characters in unlikable situations, Darkness Whispers is just plain unlikable. The authors cheat their way through the story, building up a false tension by writing lines like “Had he known it would be his last day with his family, he would have spent more time with them at breakfast”, but then ends the story by having the whole family survive. It’s fine that the authors took the story in that direction, but they cheat by hinting that the story will end differently than it does. It destroys whatever credibility the authors have, and it means we can’t trust them any more. (And, frankly, the less said about the ending with Hitler, the better. It’s just cliched at this point.)

“The Meek Shall Inherit…” is Chizmar’s solo story, and is compelling, but by the time the story finally gets interesting, it ends. It reads more like a spec summary for a novel than a story into itself, and I felt disappointed with it. I don’t have to have a firm resolution to every story I read, but for this one, I needed more details, and needed to know how it would end.

Freeman’s story, “What They Left Behind”, is the best story in this small collection, but even it isn’t a five-star story. What makes it work is the atmosphere Freeman creates around the story, which imbibes the story with a just-right creepy feeling. I only wish he had been able to bring more of that atmosphere and subtlety to the title story.

Darkness Whispers isn’t a top-tier collection, but it does have its moments. I only wish that the title story had been more trustworthy, and that it had featured more of the best skills of each writer. As it is, it’s mediocre at best, and not something I would recommend even to the most hardcore of horror readers.

Started: December 25, 2017
Finished: December 26, 2017

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