Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz

dustdevilsIt’s on from page one, and it doesn’t stop until it’s done. On a desert in 1880s New Mexico, a man called Cody and a boy named Willet spy a group of vampires feasting on some nice human barbecue. The vampires, travelling from town to town as a theatre troupe, have taken Cody’s wife; from Willet, they’ve taken his whole family.

We get the backstory bit by bit, but otherwise it’s nonstop action, told on the go; after a fight with the vampires, Cody and Willet try to head off the creatures at a nearby town. Soon enough the troupe shows up again, this time for a show at the local saloon. It’s not exactly Shakespeare these vampires perform, but the crowd does go wild. The final standoff at a ranch caps things off in a gory whirlwind of headshots, decapitations and torn arteries.

It’s not subtle, but hell if it isn’t effective. The action is very well paced – the 250-page novel goes past in a breeze – and there’s a sparkle to the language already familiar from writer Jonathan Janz‘s previous novels; in horror, perhaps only Robert R. McCammon manages to keep a story going with such constant energy. Only at the very end does the action begin to lag, as the aftermath goes on perhaps a few pages too long. But then again the reader might need a breather before returning to the real world, a gentle easing back from the adrenaline-fuelled heights.

Surprisingly, for such an action-packed story, the characters are drawn in some detail as well. Cody is a likeable man, whose already complex relationships with his wife, his father and young Willet get severely tested in the course of the novel, giving it all a strong emotional backbone. Marguerite, a saloonkeeper he meets in the town, comes with some baggage in her relationships as well, and their first meeting is a well executed sequence that happily defies the laymonian school of man-woman relationships, making it resound just that crucial little bit more.

The vampires – needless to say, not the Twilight kind – are bestial, but also eerily human; the western horror genre brings to mind Lance Henriksen‘s group in the movie Near Dark (1987; incidentally scripted by Eric Red, another Samhain author). The vampires aren’t calculating and cool, but temperamental, and when they lose their heads, well, they lose their heads. The familiar mythology does get a rewrite, but it’s nicely explained – the thespian vampires are, after all, professional liars.

The fifth novel by Janz, Dust Devils is plotwise concise and psychologically streamlined; it’s all muscle and heart. The small cast and the straightforward, nearly real-time storyline also help, giving the novel a wonderful immediacy and a fierce, kinetic energy that drives the narrative compulsively forward; for sheer speed, Dust Devils, pardon the pun, truly leaves many others in its dust.

****½ (4.5/5)

Published in February 2014 by Samhain Publishing. Visit the author’s site!

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DarkFuse #1, edited by Shane Staley

darkfuse1A novella-length anthology, DarkFuse volume 1 offers six stories; some are traditional, others experimental. All are quite good.

She Sleeps in the Depths by William Meikle: A man named Fallon gets an earworm, a sea-shanty of sorts. Close Encounter style, he takes a ship up north, and meets with a woman who hears the same tune in her head. And off they go, in search of the source somewhere out at sea.

A Lovecraftian tale, She Sleeps in the Depths has a great atmosphere; the pared-down, detached greyness of it all reminds me of Nordic noir crime novels. The writing’s strong throughout, and a mention of the ship’s karaoke hell certainly strikes a chord in anyone who’s ever travelled on the ferries in Northern Europe. **** (4/5)

Better Heard and Not Seen by Michael Penkas: A boy believes there’s a monster in his closet. Soon as he’s gone to bed, something comes out of the closet and climbs in the bed with him. But it’s not the monster.

Surely it cannot get any more traditional than this. It’s an old-fashioned story that feels almost like a lost classic from an earlier age. The story gets a lot out of its overtly familiar premise, and the writing’s good, but all in all it’s still a very simple story. *** (3/5)

Carrion Fowl by William R. Eakin: People suddenly mutate into some sort of cannibalistic flying creatures with beaks and everything, and then they fly around eating people and each other and going “wrocckkkk!”

It’s a nice juxtaposition, putting this after the most traditional story here! What a weird story this is. There’s not really much plot, mostly we follow a couple as they start their new posthuman lives as some sort of pterodactyls. They also seem to go insane in the process, relishing their new reality with epic phrases (the writing’s excellent, but some sections go on for a bit too long) and really going about it all like it’s actually quite natural to turn into a monster. Would’ve fit nicely in the Cthulhu’s Reign anthology. ***½ (3.5/5)

Jaws of Life by E.G. Smith: A salesman rolls his car over on a remote stretch of road and gets stuck upside down, unable to move. Scruffy children find him, but they don’t call for help.

It’s a limited setup; the whole story is set inside the turned-over vehicle, with the reader seeing only what the main character sees through his window. At first the story feels like a Lord of the Flies kind of thing, but ultimately it may be more related to Richard Laymon. A well-executed tale that reveals its secrets slowly, with a nice, nasty, pitch-black final twist. **** (4/5)

Netherview by Gary McMahon: As a lark, a couple visit a home showing at a new residential area built on the site of an old asylum. Leaving, they find their car wrecked, and the gate of the compound locked.

The situation is weird, as in almost Ligottian. The residential area is empty, the phones don’t work and it almost feels like a trap designed to lure people… for what purpose? For food? There’re glimpses of something, possibly some creature, but it never gets near enough to allow for any details. Luckily, since the story works better with just the characters and their growing confusion and fear. The final desperate escape attempt with its possibly fatal consequences is far scarier than any imaginary monster could be. ****½ (4.5/5)

Children of the Horned God by Christopher Fulbright: A horned creature grabs a man’s wife. Some time later, the man begins to hunt the creature, and in the process uncovers some secrets about his fellow citizens.

It’s all very eighties in style, with a Satanic style coven, hints of paganism (Herne is referred to, there are trees with faces etc) and even some Lovecraftian overtones. There’s a lot going on, a lot of cheese, with scenes upon scenes of convenient pulpy revelations. It’s all kind of good, but there simply might be a little too much good stuff here, at least for a short story (you could make several lurid eighties horror novels out of these ingredients). A more straightforward storyline, with a little more normalcy and less cheese would’ve probably made more of an impact. **½ (2.5/5)

Anthology rating, rounded up: **** (4/5)

Published in March 2014 by DarkFuse.

The Devil’s Woods by Brian Moreland

devilswoodsKyle Elkheart‘s academic father has gone missing somewhere in Canada, and Kyle, together with his womanizing brother Eric and little sister Shawna go and look for him. Along for the trip are Eric’s fiance Jessica and Shawna’s boyfriend Zack.

Set around a forest Cree Indian legends say is evil, The Devil’s Woods (2013) takes its time to get going. There are occasional maulings by an unseen creature, but otherwise it’s all character build-up for the first two-thirds; the relationships between siblings gets strained, with Kyle falling for Eric’s fiance, as well as Eric fooling around with a local woman.

Little does he know that there’s something fishy about these descendants of Danish settlers, who, for example, abduct passing women for their nefarious needs. The Elkhearts, even though they grew up in the area, are surprisingly obtuse to the fact that their neighbours aren’t even human.

But nevermind; once they figure it out, it’s lock and load and fire at will. Dad Elkheart pops up with a couple of mercenaries (an Italian and a South African, no less) and even Kyle goes into a crazy pulp action mode. The final third of the novel is adrenaline-fueled horror of the first order, with a full-on attack into the subterranean temples of the things that have so long held sway over the Devil’s Woods. And there’s a damsel in distress as well! I don’t think I even need to tell that they fly out of there in a small plane in the end? They do indeed.

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This reviewer’s artistic impression of the novel’s climax!

Truly, this is epic pulp goodness.

As may be apparent, it’s not exactly realistic fiction we’re talking about; but it is quite awesome, in a Robert E. Howard kind of way. The writing is good throughout; Kyle’s visit to the local graveyard being a particularly memorable scene, as well as all of the last third. The sudden change from a family drama to pulp horror is somewhat jarring, but who cares; it’s unbridled fun from there to the final line.

**** (4/5)

Available now as an ebook and in print from Samhain Publishing. Visit the author’s site!

The Long Walk by Richard Bachman

TheLongWalkKids in America take the Long Walk in a 1979 sports novel (of a sort) by Richard Bachman. One hundred boys set out, and they will walk day and night, in rain or shine, until one by one they are (literally) eliminated from the competition for slowing down or stopping. Whoever endures the longest will be the winner – everyone else will be dead.

The story focuses on 16-year-old Ray Garraty, who falls in with a small group of other Walkers – “The Musketeers”, they call themselves. Their motives for signing up for the race are stunningly vague; most of them seem to be in it just because they have a death wish, implying that in the ultra-conservative future of the Long Walk youth suicides are made into a spectator sport (perhaps in order to improve statistics, to show how mentally healthy the society is under the new regime?).

The novel follows its simple countdown structure doggedly throughout, not once deviating from it. There’s very little backstory, and none of the outside world is fleshed out in any detail, except for the big brother style figure of “the Major” who runs the Walk, and the seething, bloodthirsty crowds, who are almost an entity unto themselves. But basically there’s just the Walk, starting from the Canadian border and snaking its way down through Maine towards Boston, and the patter of 100 pairs of feet on the asphalt.

It does get a bit tedious after a while. That may be the point; the competition is explicitly made out to have a psychological aspect as well, and it’s hinted that some winners have gone insane. No wonder, watching 99 fellow walkers get blown away would presumably trigger a hell of a survivor’s guilt (there’s no doubt some symbolism with the Vietnam war at the root of the novel). The novel’s severely limited approach is structurally great; as entertainment, however, it doesn’t quite maintain its sparkle throughout, with the latter half visibly dragging (like some of the Walkers by that point).

While the novel is the first one Stephen King ever wrote, it does contain some strikingly well-written passages. The landscape of Maine as the road twists and turns is brought vividly to life, and most of the Walkers are given personal characteristics, even those who only appear for a sentence or two. There are some odd details – some walkers apparently wear leather and jeans – making sports of the future seem decidedly retro.

*** (3/5)

The Auctioneer by Joan Samson

auctioneerA stranger surreptitiously takes control of a New Hampshire town in The Auctioneer, a novel by Joan Samson. Published in 1975, the novel may have lost its popularity over the years, but none of its potency.

The stranger is Perly Dunsmore, a smooth-talking auctioneer, who soon after arriving in Harlowe starts organizing auctions for the benefit of the local police force. A one-officer town, Harlowe is apparently in dire need of more deputies, because crime is on the rise.

The items for the auctions are donated by local people, who in turn get rid of all their needless junk. But after they’ve given all they can willingly give, the collectors (the new deputies, local thugs now with badges) keep coming, every Thursday, with stories of how people who refused to donate items for the auctions have met with “accidents”. Under the implied threat of violence, most keep on giving, until they have nothing left. And still the collectors keep coming for more. For the land and even for the children.

The story is told from the viewpoint of the Moore family. Like in H.G. WellsThe War of the Worlds, the Moores often hear about events secondhand; for the most of the novel, they are alone in their predicament. It’s only when the town finally gets together that people are spurred into action. But even then, Perly seems to hold the upper hand, making the townspeople, now a violent mob, give away their last ounce of decency.

It’s partly an allegory, but Samson is clever enough to keep things general enough to avoid any direct comparisons. Perly could be a herald of commercialism or totalitarianism, and there’s maybe even a government gone rampant angle for Libertarians to gnaw on. Or Perly could simply be the devil, a reading that is equally valid.

At its roots The Auctioneer is in the tradition of Shirley Jackson, with shades of Franz Kafka; the novel has no doubt influenced such authors as Stephen King and even more probably, Bentley Little, who has made this sort of allegorical tales about society his trademark (The Store, The Association and many others).

Samson’s writing is solid, but the novel has its drawbacks; the Moores’ lifestyle seems far too backward and almost anachronistic for the mid-seventies. The structure of the novel also pretty much trumps the characters, with the middle of the novel mostly taken over by the repetitive Thursday visits. The Moores’ helplessness is also depressing to say the least. That may be the point, but it’s possibly also one of the reasons why the novel has passed into semi-oblivion. The tale of The Auctioneer is not the Great American Story many want to be told. But it is a necessary tale.

**** (4/5)

Thieving Fear by Ramsey Campbell

thieving_fearA dead occultist makes life complicated for four cousins in Thieving Fear, a 2008 novel by Ramsey Campbell. Like Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark (2006), Thieving Fear also features characters who have their perception of reality severely impaired by a supernatural force.

The story starts with Charlotte, Ellen, Hugh and Rory camping as youngsters at a site they later learn was the location of a house owned by a notorious magician. During the night they have nightmares and Charlotte almost walks off a cliff.

Years later, the four begin exhibiting strange symptoms, alternately ridiculous and horrific, in true Campbell style; Hugh loses his sense of direction, Charlotte gets claustrophobic, Rory loses his vision and Ellen begins to think she’s disgustingly fat. Also, a thin shadow of a man always seems to lurk somewhere near. Ultimately they trace the events back to that one night in their youth, and discover the dark secrets buried inside the cliff.

It’s all about the characters in this one, their experiences as their senses fail and their reality unravels in everyday situations. The downside is that the plot becomes secondary; there isn’t much of a one, and even the adversary is handled as little more than a flitting shadow. As a result Thieving Fear doesn’t quite have the impact of its immediate predecessor; The Grin of the Dark had the mystery of silent film comedian Tubby Thackeray going for it, giving the readers some good, firm plot to grab onto.

The subplots about Ellen’s position at a care home and Hugh’s job at a supermarket are tickly good fun, with some wickedly unpleasant supporting characters. Ellen’s foray into the publishing world with Charlotte as her editor also makes for a fun read, with anecdotes that are possibly drawn from experience.

Campbell’s sharp writing keeps things interesting, but the going does get quite frustrating in the middle, with all the characters suffering from some impediment or other. The end, however, rewards the reader with a nice, weird twist and great imagery. As a whole Thieving Fear is a low key affair, but it does deliver where it counts.

*** (3/5)

Haunted by James Herbert

hauntedA skeptical ghost hunter goes on a mission in Haunted, a 1988 novel by James Herbert. Arriving with some emotional baggage of his own, the ghost hunter soon discovers that ghosts are real – and that they want vengeance.

It’s the first appearance of Herbert’s ghost hunter David Ash, who would go on to further adventures in The Ghosts of Sleath (1994) and Ash (Herbert’s last novel, 2012). Ash believes in natural explanations, that all apparitions and similar phenomena can be explained by drafts, leaks and other such faults found in old houses… and the rats, the rats in the walls, perhaps?

Invited to Edbrook Hall by the three Mariell siblings, Ash’s investigations soon take a sour turn as he glimpses a girl in white around the premises, supposedly a ghost of the family’s long-dead younger sister. Revelations follow revelations, and in the end even Ash’s own family history comes into play.

At a mere 228 pages Haunted is a quick read. Herbert keeps the chapters short and his language blunt. The otherwise effective narrative is interrupted by two jarring flashbacks that would’ve probably been more effective as a prologue. Incidentally, that’s exactly how they were handled in the movie adaptation of the story (1995).

Ultimately it’s a ridiculously far-fetched tale, even for a ghost story. The big twist itself is great; it’s the motivation for the events that is glaringly beyond belief. Herbert’s writing saves a lot, but whereas his sentences are brisk, sharp and clear, the plot is a convoluted, murky mess.

The movie adaptation from 1995 adds some story and makes it all a bit sexier, but both versions follow the same basic outline.

** (2/5)