The Border (2015) by Robert McCammon

border_10_hcThe Border is Robert McCammon‘s long-anticipated return to the balls-to-the-wall horror of such classics as Swan Song (1987). Unfortunately, the balls are missing, the wall is crumbling and the result is a poor copy of that earlier (far superior) novel.

There’s not a whole lot of originality in The Border. The plotline is pretty much lifted wholesale from Swan Song, with a supernaturally gifted youngster leading a ragtag pack of survivors to a US president hiding in a mountain base. But instead of a nuclear war, it’s an alien war that has devastated the planet. That ingenious difference probably comes from any number of alien invasion movies, video games and TV shows, with Falling Skies being perhaps the most obvious one.

Even overlooking the secondhand premise it’s hard to enjoy the novel; the storytelling drags, forcefully, like the novel had no literary editor at all (some typos and a constant, annoying use of dot dot dot also imply that some quality control was surrendered in the making of this novel). The beginning is alright, but an overlong alien sex sequence (!) segues into a long, interminable bus ride which takes just forever, with basically no breaks in between. I mean, couldn’t there have been at least some attempt to flesh out the world in which these characters live.

Besides the miracle kid Ethan who finds himself turning into a Silver Surfer, only the television evangelist Jefferson Jericho is sketched out in any significant detail; he’s the only character worthy of the title “character” in the novel, the others being basically cardboard stand-ins. The aliens are alien, and particularly one-note creations at that, with a (not at all surprisingly) silly Terminator-like mandroid Vope being the most memorable one, besides the penis-milking alien queen (really can’t get that alien sex sequence out of my mind, sorry).

The single positive thing about the novel and its remarkably undeveloped world are the mutants, the feral Gray Men, who for some reason or other keep attacking the live ones (one assumes it’s because their kind always do that in movies). There’re some moments approaching horror in these scenes, but it’s all by the numbers with no surprises, and of course they all fizzle out and it’s back to the bloody bus and a deus ex machina ending. One almost wishes someone had pushed the reset button much, much earlier.

The other saving grace of the novel is its relatively short length and some semblance of readibility (meaning it’s not the worst horror novel I’ve read, not by far; but I guess that just says something about how many truly crappy horror novels there are). At 400+ pages The Border is mercifully over fairly quickly – and it’s still hefty enough that it can be used as a doorstop or a paper weight. Small mercies, eh?

Skip this one and pick up Swan Song.

** (2/5)

Available now in multiple formats from Subterranean Press. Visit the author’s site and check out his far superior earlier books! Even the fairly recent I Travel by Night kicks some serious butt.

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Phantom (1982) by Thomas Tessier

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US paperback (Berkley)

Tessier’s 1982 novel is all tease and little else; young Ned moves with his parents to a new town on the seaside, hangs out with some old geezers and has a fever dream. Somewhere along the way there are ominous hints about vague horrors… but they never really manifest themselves. Phantom isn’t just quiet horror; it’s mute as fuck.

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UK paperback (Pan Macmillan) opens…

It starts well, though, with a real-life health scare. But that’s all. A ridiculously long dungeon crawl in the middle of the slim novel brings an already glacial pace to a standstill; and to really batter the reader into a coma, the novel soon presents the reader with another dungeon crawl with very little variation.

Now the quality of writing here is excellent, there’s no question about that; but after a while it gets increasingly difficult to enjoy a novel that constantly keeps baiting the reader, yet never goes anywhere.

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…to reveal a second cover.

My disappointment is possibly multiplied by high expectations: Tessier has a great rep, the coming-of-age genre rarely fails, and the US paperback cover has a vague folk horror feel that is utterly absent in the novel itself. On the other hand, quiet horror is an acquired taste, and if it doesn’t tickle your fancy, it just comes across as so much pointless noodling. And Phantom is a stellar case in point.

Ned’s fever dream at the end, with all its surrealism, is slightly reminiscent of H.C. Andersen‘s fable The Story of a Mother. A fine piece of horror, that one. Phantom, well…

** (2/5)

Originally published in 1982. Available in multiple editions.

At Fear’s Altar by Richard Gavin

fearsaltarRichard Gavin channels several classic weird authors in At Fear’s Altar, a collection of 12 stories and a prologue.

The stories come in roughly three types: the homages, the monsters and the psychological. Of the stories in the first category, two are based on early Lovecraft, with Faint Baying from Afar serving as a sequel to Lovecraft’s The Hound and The Unbound taking a go at the legend of The Unnamable. The best of the lot is A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress, a homage to Hanns Heinz Ewers that feels like a lost classic of the weird and not a modern story at all.

Next up are the monster stories; in The Abject, a woman disappears during a hiking trip (into the clutches of a monster). The Plain is a weird western, where a group of men hungry for gold fall prey to the titular plain. The Word-Made Flesh concerns strange, godlike powers gained at an abandoned farm. Annexation follows a woman in search for her grown-up son. And Darksome Leaves is a Halloween story of sorts, about a mask that opens up a whole new world.

With the exception of The Plain, the stories feature modern-day people who stumble into cosmic horrors. The emphasis is on atmosphere and suggestion, as it should, but strangely, the stories tend to end with the big bad being very big and bad. There’s very little room for second opinions of the “what did I really see? if anything?” variety. Yes, it was real, and the monster ate you. End of story. On the other hand, such lack of subtlety is kind of refreshing, so there you go.

The third category goes for the psychological effect instead. Here characters are in denial of their own reality, perhaps because it’s too sad, too horrific or too mundane. There’s (again) a hint of Lovecraft here, with the Celephaïs-style quiet, desperate yearning for something more. Chapel in the Reeds depicts an old man imagining a remote chapel filled with pornography. King Him is the story of two siblings who hear a voice in their heads, spurring them to unspoken deeds. Only Enuma Elish reads like something out of Tim Powers, a fantasy concoction that connects a Babylonian creation mythos to hurricane Katrina. And last but not least, The Eldritch Faith tells the tale of a lonely boy, whose new spirit friend drives him to murder, insanity and a strange alternative reality.

It’s a strong collection, with no bad or even mediocre offerings; the writing is sharp throughout and some characters even manage to transcend their role as monster fodder. One drawback is that it never really lets the reader forget the old masters; they’re always there, lurking in the background. Still, it all somehow works like a shoggoth. But as always with story collections, At Fear’s Altar may be too much to digest in one go; as one-offs the stories would probably shine a lot brighter. Serving suggestion: enjoy in small portions.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2012 by Hippocampus Press. Visit the author’s site! Check out Gavin’s latest project Penumbrae – an Occult Fiction Anthology, released in April. 

The Sign of Glaaki by Steven Savile and Steve Lockley

sign_of_glaakiYoung Dennis Wheatley, later known for his occult novels such as The Devil Rides Out, arrives in the United States to consult on a film shoot together with renowned escape artist Harry Houdini. It’s all very pleasant, with carnival freaks (cf. Tod Browning’s 1932 film) and all, but then actresses get murdered and various hijinks ensue, culminating at a lake that serves as a center of worship for local loonies. Or something.

It’s all very confusing. The plot lacks purpose; after the somewhat clever beginning the novel seems to implode into a series of incoherent scenes, with the characters rambling around Dunwich (now a major city, apparently) until a strange whimper of an ending. The choice of characters is clever, and combining silent film with a Great Old One created by Ramsey Campbell just screams perfection; but there’s no progression, no sense of menace, no plot to follow. It’s all padding, with a few neat names thrown in the mix.

Oddly, the association with the Arkham Horror board game is the least of the novel’s problems; the only glaring sign of the game seems to be the appearance of PI Joe Diamond, who naturally comes across as that much cardboard. Diamond seems almost glued-on to the novel, perhaps a late editorial addition to beef up the already far-stretched contents?

Some of the novels in the Arkham Horror line have been quite good fun; unfortunately, The Sign of Glaaki, despite having possibly the best premise, falls flat.

* (1/5)

Published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2013. Available in paperback.

1986

1986

This blog has been on pause for a while, mostly because I was working on my comic book (you can see the cover above). The book is now out and available! (and therefore I will also resume this blog)

Not surprisingly, “1986” is a horror story – it begins as a ghost story, then becomes a decidedly Stephen King style coming-of-age story. The year in the title is no coincidence, it’s the year of IT and Stand by Me, among others. Other than eighties horror, the story pays tribute to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. The game’s sanity loss mechanism plays a big role.

You can see samples of the book in my Twitter, as well as on the publisher’s page (click the numbers after “Näytesivut“).

If you wish to support the blog, or if you’re just curious about the book, you can buy it directly from me (contact me and I’ll give you the instructions). The cost is a mere £8 (or $10) and the price includes shipping worldwide.

Urban Gothic by Brian Keene

urbangothicAn engine failure leaves a group of white middle class youths stranded in the worst part of Philadelphia. As a black gang approaches their vehicle, the youths panic and run head over heels into an abandoned building. The door slams shut, a degenerate giant with his giant hammer appears, and heads get splattered.

The giant is just the tip of the iceberg; soon the surviving youths find themselves dodging deformed midgets, a man wearing the skin of a woman, and other assorted horrors. The house is a trap, designed to capture prey for the race of creatures that live in the cave system beneath it. And that’s where the youths learn the exit is, so down they go, into the bowels of the earth.

The long, meandering dungeon crawl that follows is straight up death metal, early Cannibal Corpse style. The plot gets lost somewhere in the darkness, as do the youths, stumbling along from horror to horror. It’s a constant barrage of gloriously obscene vileness, all mood and atmosphere. The subterranean caverns are another world, and it’s been there for ages; there’s a hint of perverse grandeur to the revelation, reminiscent of Lovecraft‘s The Rats in the Walls.

While the youths are preoccupied with the horrors, the gang outside  good people, as it turns out  rallies the neighbourhood to help them. The urban setting is a refreshing change from the usual rural cannibal fare (Laymon, Ketchum, et al), rooting it firmly in the real world and its real problems.

In the end it all feels like an introduction to a larger whole, a mere scratch on the surface; but it’s a deep, nasty, wonderfully festering scratch.

**** (4/5)

Originally published in 2009, currently available from Deadite Press. Visit the author’s site!

I Am the New God by Nicole Cushing

I_AM_THE_NEW_GODA divinely (or diabolically) gleeful novella, I Am the New God follows a young man named Greg as he receives a letter telling him he’s going to be the new God. Sent by “a hierophant”, the correspondence culminates in a list of tasks Greg needs to follow on his path to godhood. It’s all a bit of a lark until the reader realizes Greg was a bit unhinged to begin with. Soon he’s all aboard with the idea of becoming the new God; he sets off on a search for the hierophant, making converts along the way by gouging out their eyes, their vision having long been poisoned by the reality of the old God.

Loonies always make the best characters, and the pair here are no exception; Greg’s descent from an ordinary, very identifiable cynic to a psychopath serial killer happens gradually, throwing the reader into a nice loop of surprises. The hierophant, a defrocked priest, is also insane, but more subtly so, almost as a parody of blind faith; his attempt to explain away how Greg is unable to walk on water is hilarious, and it’s his faulty logic which eventually pushes Greg over the edge. Greg’s crazy because he’s off his meds, but the hierophant really has no excuse.

There’s a lot of brutal, sudden violence in the novella; it works well with the spiky, dark humour. The theological aspects of the story are conveyed smoothly, none of it getting too theoretical or in the way of a good story.

The novella shares some similarities with T.E.D. Klein‘s brilliant short story Nadelman’s God; both stories are about the nature of god(s), and feature letters going back and forth between a skeptic and a believer. The rest is different, but the results are equally impressive.

***** (5/5)

An ebook novella, available on April 8, 2014 and published by the consistently excellent DarkFuse. Visit the author’s blog!