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

gripDeathgrip by Brian Hodge


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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September 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

contactContact by Carl Sagan


I collect quotes from the books I read. I used to write them down on index cards and keep them in a file box. One day I decided to organize them, and I found that the one source that I found to be most quotable was Contact. Its balance of science and faith struck a chord with me, which makes sense, since during the time I read it, I was still struggling with my feelings about God and spirituality.

Now, I’m listening to the book as an atheist, and it’s a different kind of experience. The science component of the book is strong, enough so that I wonder if Sagan originally approached the story as an outline of a thought experiment on first contact, and decided to develop it into a fictional story. Strangely, the faith aspect of the book is also strong, even stronger than I remember. It feels stronger in the movie, as Ellie is presented with having to decide if she believes in something despite the overwhelming lack of evidence to support it, but the book pretty much comes out and says the universe was designed. It surprised me, especially when Sagan seemed to be a full-on atheist.

The book differed from the movie in other ways, including the number of people who travel in the machine. In the movie, it’s just Ellie; in the book, she’s one of a team of five, all of whom are convinced that what they experienced is real. The movie also reinforces that idea (18 hours of static, anyone?), but the book returns the agency to the characters themselves instead of to an outside, unknown-to-the-main-characters scene.

I had also forgotten how much hand-waving Sagan brings to the story. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on the science of how the machine works, but gets away with it by having the scientists of Earth reverse-engineer it to understand it completely. The ending with the aliens is also anti-climactic, as Sagan makes them absentee overseers, with no one getting the answers they want. For it to end that way, I would prefer that the story remain on Earth, with the scientists speculating.

I know Sagan was concerned with the threat of nuclear war in the era in which he wrote the book, but it feels oversimplified and laughable that he uses that as a primary factor for why the aliens contacted Earth. Maybe I’m oversimplifying the threat of nuclear war now, but to look at it now, thirty years on, is like reading about the Red Scare in the 1980s; it’s so far removed that it doesn’t seem like the concern Sagan makes it out to be.

I still enjoyed the book, partly for the nostalgia, partly for the recognition (it was fun to hear the quotes I had written down so long ago), and partly for the characters. Sagan isn’t a bad novelist, even if he isn’t the greatest, either. He relies a bit too much on telling instead of showing, but he also avoids info-dumps. Since he approached science as something to teach instead of preach, that doesn’t surprise me. There are parts of it that sound like they were written for a nonfiction book about first contact, and there are pieces of it that feel borrowed from his other nonfiction books, but it’s a solid examination of the idea, populated with interesting characters.

I dropped my rating a point after finishing this, not because it was bad, but because it didn’t have the same resonance I remembered from the first reading. This isn’t Sagan’s fault, but it is true that what you get out of a book depends on what you put into it, and in this case, losing your faith has a big impact on a book that’s mostly about faith. Still, I’d recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed the movie, since it gives an alternate look at the trip through the machine.

Started: September 6, 2018
Finished: September 19, 2018

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Lost Futures

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

futuresLost Futures by Lisa Tuttle


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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Whipping Boy

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

boyWhipping Boy by John Byrne


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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Shadow Twin

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

twinShadow Twin by Dale Hoover


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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July 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

visionTunnelvision by R. Patrick Gates


I’m up to book ten in the Abyss books, which means I’m about a quarter of the way through the entire line, and I was surprised to find that Tunnelvision is a pretty solid story. Maybe I had lowered my expectations after reading the Dee and Reed books, but Gates does a good job of telling a serial killer/police procedural story. The title comes from the gimmick he uses to define the killer, which is how he sees the world from the perspective of someone watching television. He’s created his own network of shows based on his own twisted upbringing and his current endeavors.

The story is a little tell-y, so the characters don’t spring from the page, but he does well enough with his pacing and plot to keep the story moving along. Tunnelvision isn’t the kind of book to wind up on any underrated or hidden gem lists, but it holds together well enough to keep the reader interested. I just can’t see anyone thinking much of the book after finishing it.

I feel like I’m damning the book with faint praise, but while Gates’ prose skills are solid, the story isn’t that memorable. I’ve read the book before, over twenty years ago, but I didn’t remember any of the details from the book. Given some of the other dreck that exists in the Abyss line, it stands above those books, but it doesn’t reach the heights that Koja or Tem brought to the line.

Fortunate Musical Connection: “Innervision” by System of a Down

Started: May 15, 2018
Finished: May 27, 2018

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

masteryMastery by Kelley Wilde


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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The Two-Bear Mambo

June 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

mamboThe Two-Bear Mambo by Joe R. Lansdale


I’ve been reading the Hap & Leonard series for over twenty years, which is long enough to be excited about the TV show based on the series. After the first two seasons ended, I went back and re-read the books on which they were based, and I did the same with the third season. While I wasn’t reluctant to return to the story, I remembered enough to know it was going to be a dark, depressing journey.

Florida Grange, lawyer to Leonard and one-time-lover of Hap, has gone missing in the town of Grovetown, a town known for being stuck in the Jim Crow days. Hap and Leonard, fresh off of burning down another crack house, get stuck with going to Grovetown to find her. Leonard, being black, makes that a daunting enough task, regardless of how little the residents of the town care to share about Florida. What they face there is grim enough to run them out of town.

The show takes more liberties with the story than it did with the previous seasons. I can’t say what those differences are without spoiling the plot, but they’re significant enough for me to prefer the book to the show. Suffice to say, if you’ve only seen the current season of the show, it’s worth your time to read the book to get another take on the story. They’re not so different as to be unrecognizable, but different characters get different development between the show and the book.

Started: April 14, 2018
Finished: April 15, 2018

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May 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )


Prodigal by Melanie Tem


Two names seem to still have some clout from the Dell/Abyss line: Kathe Koja is one; Melanie Tem is the other. Both are known as authors who write unusual books that are more about unsettling than scaring, and are (so far, at least) closer to the “cutting edge” that the publisher claimed these books would be. Prodigal was Tem’s first novel, and it shows what to expect with her career.

The story is about a family of nine who, as the story opens, is still recovering from their oldest son, who has run away. Told from the point of view of Lucy, the third-oldest child who is eleven years old, we get a somewhat skewed look at the state of the family. We see the grief and the denial of the parents, the anger and confusion of the children, and the interference of the family’s therapist, but through the eyes of a character who doesn’t have the maturity to understand much of what she sees. She’s still in the “I hate you!” stage of her emotional development, and as her family slowly crumbles around her, we see a pattern emerge among the oldest children and how they relate to their parents and their therapist.

Prodigal is not out-and-out horror. It contains disturbing imagery and characters, but Tem gives us hints at things being not right, as opposed to giving us the shock of the monsters fully revealed. Events are ordinary, but hardly mundane, and when Tem does show us events that aren’t normal, or even natural, they stand out even more against the backdrop of the family. Her horrors stand in as representations of the Brill family dynamic, but since they’re told to us from Lucy’s perspective, we know that they’re actually happening, since she’s not old enough to understand allegory or metaphor.

This book is another re-read for me, but I didn’t remember any details of the story as I read it. This doesn’t surprise me; when I read this book for the first time, I was looking for out-and-out horror, and I’m sure it disappointed me. Like Lucy, then I didn’t have the maturity and experience to recognize the book for being as effective as it is, but now, I can recognize it as the achievement it is. Prodigal, almost thirty years after its first publication, is still relevant.

Started: April 2, 2018
Finished: April 8, 2018

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The Cipher

April 19, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cipherThe Cipher by Kathe Koja


For me, Dell/Abyss defines what horror was in the early 1990s. Stephen King blurbed the entire line, and the publisher swore the books would be cutting-edge. They could have done no better than to start with The Cipher, Koja’s first novel, featuring outcast characters and surrealistic imagery and horror.

This is a re-read for me, and I went into it with some trepidation. I remembered the book as being avant garde, Koja’s style unorthodox and confusing. It definitely remains avant garde, even twenty-plus years later, but Koja’s style was more straightforward than I recalled. She definitely breaks some grammatical rules, but not in such a way as to interrupt the flow of the story. I just found it odd that I remembered something far more unusual.

Part of it, I think, is the content of the story. Koja’s main characters, Nakota and Nicholas, aren’t likeable; Nakota is a bully, and Nicholas has no motivation. The story, though, hums along with a high level of interest when they discover a hole in their apartment building, which leads into another dimension. Koja avoids the usual tropes this would present for a science fiction story, and instead focuses on the lengths the characters go to discover more about the hole’s effects. Nakota’s interests are dark and perverse, so her obsession with the hole is in how it deforms reality, and since Nicholas is obsessed with Nakota, he follows in her interest. This is where the horror enters, since the imagery and theme do more to mess with our heads than the actual progression of the story.

The story, for all its darkness, is about the search for meaning. Nakota looks for it through the hole, and Nicholas looks for it through Nakota. This microcosm is affected by the hole, and as this relationship grows more complicated, so do the effects of the hole, and their search for meaning becomes more important. It’s hard to say whether or not they find it, but the story doesn’t feel incomplete as a result. I give it 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 because it was so far ahead of its time.

The Cipher could easily be a part of the modern new horror, with its surrealism and nihilism. Koja definitely started, or was part of, that revolution, and she tells an effective tale here. It’s hard to recommend it because it comes at the reader so strongly, but folks who like stories about characters on the fringe of society would find a lot to like here. At the very least, it’s affirmed my decision to read through all of the Abyss books to see how they hold up so many years later.

Started: January 31, 2018
Finished: February 3, 2018

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