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.

Slade House by David Mitchell

CBpZPA4XIAEohhRThere’s a small iron door in a narrow alley. Beyond it lies a sumptuous garden that surrounds the titular house – Slade House. Through the years, several people enter the house and none check out.

Slade House is a sequel-in-spirit to David Mitchell‘s previous novel The Bone Clocks; set in the same universe, it tells a smaller story, with smaller villains and in a considerably shorter length, but with a similar fragmented structure. Yet it can also be read on its own, as a haunted house story of sorts.

The chapters, set at 9-year intervals, recount the fates of the house’s victims; first a mother and her child, then a detective, followed by several others over the years. Some of the segments are genuinely creepy, such as the increasingly frantic text messages in the second-to-last chapter, slowly revealing that the character has already become trapped in the house. There’s a slight risk the structure of the book might become repetitive, but Mitchell’s solid writing keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with a slow build-up to the finale, featuring one of the familiar faces from The Bone Clocks, swooping in like a proper paranormal investigator.

At about 150 pages Slade House is more like a novella than a novel, but it’s stacked with ideas. A small book it might be, but it’s significantly bigger on the inside.

***** (5/5) 

Published in October 2015. Available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site!

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

thefirstfifteenHarry August lives and dies and is then born again, always restarting his 20th century lifespan with all his memories intact. Not alone with his predicament, the ouroborans (as they’re known) have created societies (the Cronus Clubs) to help their kind through the first difficult years of their new lives. At the end of one of Harry’s lives, he receives a message from the future (handed down from a child to an old person and so on, in a strange chain of death and rebirth) that the world is going to end.

The culprit, it seems, is a fellow 20th century ouroboran hellbent on changing history beyond its usual course – something that tends to throw things out of whack. For its latter half, the novel switches gears from a scifi/fantasy mix to a sort of spy fiction, a welcome change that keeps the story fresh throughout.

There’s a lot of background to cover in the novel (how does it all work and so on) but all the exposition never feels too cumbersome; the timey-wimey logic of it all can induce headaches, but it’s best not to think too much. The idea has legs and the story runs with them through the 20th century, in a most fantastic fashion, several times over.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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UK paperback cover

It’s Captain Trips all over again; with a sneeze and a fever the world comes to a crashing halt, and only a handful of survivors are left to pick up the pieces. In this desolate landscape a ragtag band of survivors (actors, musicians) travels from settlement to settlement, performing Shakespeare, because mere “survival is insufficient”.

And that’s the idea that lifts the novel above the common postapocalyptic drudgery; sure, there’s a tight spot or two with all the familiar craziness the end of the world brings, and that keeps things exciting. But beneath the usual trappings the message is positive and hopeful. Not only will humanity survive, but so will some of its cultural achievements, from Shakespeare to a lowliest self-published comic book. Little by little things keep getting better: a newspaper appears, and a town is seen on the horizon, lit up by electric lights.

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US cover

The postapocalyptic narrative is interrupted by scenes from before the fall, featuring a famous actor who dies suddenly on the eve of the calamity. Not all parts fit as elegantly into the whole as well as they should, but the realistic, feet on the ground optimism of the novel is, no pun intended, rather infectious.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site

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.

The Amulet (1979) by Michael McDowell

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UK paperback (Fontana)

Oh glorious paperbacks! Michael McDowell‘s first paperback original is a triumph despite the odds; what could be a run-of-the-mill story about a cursed object becomes a marvel of storytelling.

Long descriptions of an Alabama town called Pine Cone kick off the story about a revenge gone rampant; local man Dean Howell is about to be sent to Vietnam, when a rifle explodes in his face. A rifle, as it happens, built in a munitions factory in his home town. He returns as a silent, bandaged hulk, to be cared by his wife, Sarah, and jealously guarded by his mother, Jo.

Sarah’s already hard life (working at a deliciously menial job at the munitions factory) is encumbered by the obnoxiously unhelpful Jo, who bears a grudge towards everyone for what happened to his boy. Out of the blue, Jo hands Dean’s friend Larry Coppage a black amulet to give to his wife. Soon after wearing the trinket, Larry’s wife kills him and their children. And from there it’s just a matter of who gets the amulet next, and who the wearer will kill, before dying him or herself in a freak accident.

The kill-and-be-killed cycle is something like a better version of the Final Destination film series; part of the charm is knowing that something gruesome will happen, just not to whom and when and how. The amulet changes hands multiple times and leaves a suspiciously large amount of bodies in its wake (the town of Pine Cone runs out of coffins early on). The smart Sarah figures it out soon enough and begins to hunt for the cursed amulet with her friend, Becca. The homespun scoobies even employ a “wee-gee” board to ask spirits for guidance.

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Current edition (Valancourt Press)

It’s in the descriptions, the redneck characters, the rustic dialogue. McDowell’s sharp narrative triumphs gloriously over the novel’s admittedly generic plot and mass market origins. The horror in the story is horrific, but McDowell occasionally laces it with a smirk; even one pig goes murderously crazy after coming into contact with the supernaturally evil amulet. The ending, where the tables finally turn on Jo, is blissfully gleeful and pitch perfect. In lesser hands The Amulet would’ve been nothing special, just another sequence of cheap thrills. But the high quality of the writing transforms it into something special.

***** (5/5)

Originally published in 1979 by Avon Books. Currently available from Valancourt Books.

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. 

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

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UK paperback (Sphere)

Here we go ’round the mulberry bush in post-apocalyptic America, the salvation of which depends on one little girl called Swan. Possessing a supernatural affinity towards plantlife (including mulberry bushes, I assume), she has the power to bring a world devastated by nuclear war back to life.

But it’s almost one thousand pages to get there, and there’s a nuclear wasteland in between. Luckily she has a little help from her friends; there’s the former wrestler Josh (aka. Black Frankenstein), as well as the traumatized woman known only as Sister Creep, plus a few others. In addition to general devastation, radiation and other ills of the war, the good guys are opposed at every turn by the devilish Man with the Scarlet Eye, whose sole purpose seems to be to destroy all life and hope, with glee, while humming the old song.

The structure is familiar; the protagonists and the antagonists (including a ragtag Army of Excellence led by a crazed colonel and a psychopathic teenager) start out separately and are then brought together by the plot. Beginning with an epic Tom Clancy opening, the novel soon settles into a comfortable groove, with closeups on the handful of survivors and their travails. The episodic quality keeps the stories going, with some fits and jumps; there are the chapters with the sad and the chapters with the mad, familiar tropes all from such later shows as Walking Dead.

Towards the end, some of the plot strands are railroaded rather forcefully towards the conclusion; the neat and tidy ending is perhaps slightly too neat and tidy. Some of the ideas, such as Job’s Mask (a growth/cocoon around the face that later bursts to reveal the character’s true inner self), provide altogether obvious and unnecessary emphasis. The many Christian references late in the novel are also somewhat surprising; perhaps in the eighties religion didn’t quite have the same stigma it carries in these latter days.

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US paperback (Pocket Books)

There’s a healthy helping of the supernatural and the fantastic in the mix; Sister Creep is led to Swan and Josh by a glass ring (glass and jewels from Manhattan shops fused together in a nuclear blast) that gives her visions. The Man with the Scarlet Eye wants it, and it’s his short forays to the center stage – watching a movie at an undamaged movie theater in otherwise levelled Manhattan is a particular high point – that give the novel that extra kick, especially when the gloomy realism of the post-apocalyptic world starts to become too much to bear.

The writing is familiar McCammon, with a kind of electric charge humming throughout the novel. Due to the massive length, the current sometimes sags and surges, but that’s only natural. McCammon weaves his saga expertly, with seemingly disparate elements (the glass ring, tarot cards, phrases from T.S. Eliot) being fused one by one together at later points. The characters are likeable, with Swan growing up into her Fisher Queen role, and Sister Creep coming out of her personal haze to save the world. Of the evildoers, the teenage army captain Roland Croninger, who loses himself in his own strange game, stands out. It’s a long journey, but the company’s great and the scenery will blow your mind.

**** (4/5)

Published by Pocket Books in 1987. Available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site! And remember McCammon’s new novel The Border (out in May)!

The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot

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Original US cover (Avon)

Now here’s a classic that was out of print for a criminally long time. Michael Talbot‘s Victorian vampire novel is a majestic achievement, an epic alternate history about a world existing just beneath the surface, yet guiding and influencing everything.

Gone are the ghoulish Nosferatus and seductive Draculas; instead, Talbot’s vampires are detached and alien (emphasized by their particular way of walking, different from men), driven by arts and science, serving as guardian angels to mankind.

It all starts to come to light when the musically talented daughter of one Doctor Gladstone is abducted by his patient, a young and seemingly ageless Italian man called Niccolo. Gladstone tracks their trail from London to Paris and to the shores of Italy along with a new acquintance, Lady Dunaway. In the process, the age of the ageless vampire will come to an end.

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Current edition (Valancourt Books)

The Delicate Dependency is more a historical novel in the vein of Tim Powers (think 1983’s The Anubis Gates or 1989’s The Stress of Her Regard) than outright horror. The detailed descriptions of Victorian London and fin-de-siècle Paris (with frequent snippets of French and Italian languages) bring out the atmosphere just right, enveloping but not suffocating the reader in a rich tapestry of history. The realism is palpable, and when the novel begins to stretch its bounds, the style remains constant, making it all that little bit more believable.

Against this elaborate background the characters manage to come to their own as well. Gladstone is a man of learning driven by the search for his daughter, but there are different sides to him, especially in the early part of the novel. The elder daughter, Ursula, is seduced by the idea of ageless vampirism. Lady Dunaway undergoes several twists during the course of the story, first hunting vampires because they took her son and then just hunting them, like a prototypical vampire hunter.

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Paris, with Notre Dame in the background. Coincidentally, I finished reading the novel in the surroundings it’s set in.

But the stars of the novel are the vampires, paternally guiding mankind throughout centuries, protecting us from our own follies. Each vampire is unique, possessing some talent worth preserving; decisions to turn men into vampires are cool and calculated, in the service of a higher purpose. For instance, there’s Ilga, a mathematical genius who can predict the future as well as it can be calculated; Hatim, a falconer with an almost supernatural connection with his falcons; and so on. And somewhere above everyone else looms the mysterious, ancient Lodovico, the key to everything that happens in the novel. In the most remarkable deviation from tradition, Talbot’s vampires abhor violence.

Not much criticism can be levelled against the novel; the writing is excellent throughout, and despite the immense amount of exposition and detail it never gets tiresome. However, things do stagnate somewhat during Gladstone’s imprisonment in Paris, and some plot twists are a bit forceful, but in the grand scheme of things such grumbles are barely noteworthy. It’s the big picture that counts, and Talbot’s novel is as epic as they get.

The Delicate Dependency is a gorgeously beautiful book, gone far too soon but luckily now available again. It’s a very, very welcome return. Highly recommended.

***** (5/5)

Originally published in 1982 by Avon Books. Available now from Valancourt Books!

Dark Silence by Rick Hautala

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US paperback (Zebra)

The name’s a dead giveaway – it’s quiet horror in this 1992 novel by Maine’s foremost Finnish-American author. In the 17th century, a witch heading for the gallows curses the land around her. Later, a mill is built on the grounds, but by the 1960s it has long been abandoned. Two young brothers, Eddie and Mikie, enter the mill with a group of boys, only for one of them to get seriously injured in a fall. In the present day, Eddie’s son Brian and new wife Dianne discover what haunts the old mill.

Witches and ghostly voices abound, but the story’s about the living; the characters are haunted more by their fears and past actions than anything supernatural. Eddie himself carries guilt about the accident at the old mill, which saw one of his friends paralysed and Mikie sent to a mental asylum. Dianne has a near-fatal accident that echoes the fall at the old mill, and undergoes a painful recovery. Brian has difficulties with Dianne, probably simply because she’s his new stepmother and he’s a moody adolescent.

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Current eBook cover (Crossroad Press)

The mentally unbalanced brother, Mikie, appears later in the novel as a minor threat, but Hautala manages to make his portrait a complex one, with shades of sympathy. This is the novel’s greatness; nobody in it is simply good or evil, even the witch and the spirits are mostly victims of bad circumstances. Surely this sort of depth and understanding is far above and beyond an average Zebra horror author’s paygrade.

Hautala’s mannerisms – the overuse of italics and exclamation! marks – are present, but unlike in Little Brothers they seem moderate, and don’t draw attention to themselves. Subtlety has clearly triumphed over cheap cheesiness.

However, one cannot escape the sense that Hautala had a quota to fill – most Zebra paperbacks are suspiciously uniform in size, about 400 pages. There’s some bloat in Dark Silence, especially in the latter half. But in the midst of this mass market excess there are the bones of a decent novel, with subtle characterisations and a vividly dark atmosphere.

**** (4/5)

Published in 1992 by Zebra Books. Currently available as an ebook from Crossroad Press. Visit the author’s site!

Revival by Stephen King

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US edition (Scribner)

Frankenstein meets The Great God Pan in a story that spans a lifetime of two men; the fates of young Jamie Morton and reverend Charlie Jacobs become intertwined when the latter becomes the town’s new reverend. Affable and easygoing, he’s liked by everyone – until he loses his family in an accident and angrily renounces God.

But there’s a new god waiting in the wings for the good old reverend: electricity. While we follow Jamie’s exploits (first love, first band, drug addiction, calm middle age), Jacobs uses his growing knowledge to go from a reverend to a carnival attraction to a spiritual healer, and later cures Jamie from his addiction. But some of Jacobs’ patients and test subjects begin to experience strange side effects, giving clues about Jacobs’ ultimate goal: to look beyond the veil of reality.

It’s straight out of Arthur Machen, the man credited in CAPITALS on the first page of the book; the final patient is even called Mary, just like in Machen’s story. But it’s mostly seasoning; structurally the novel is familiar King territory, reminiscent of From a Buick 8 or Joyland (there are many references to that novel’s carnival vocabulary). And on his home turf, King is undeniably the best there is. Revival is a great yarn, full of nostalgia and experiences that ring true. King’s characterisations are always above and beyond most in horror fiction.

But the seasoning can sometimes overwhelm the more astute reader. There’s the (silly) namechecking of certain mythos tomes, such as Robert Bloch‘s De Vermis Mysteriis or even the (bloody) Necronomicon. Perhaps King is having fun at the fanboys’ expense (others probably won’t even notice), but such references went out of style already back when August Derleth was churning out Lovecraftian pastiches.

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UK edition (Hodder & Stoughton)

The ending, or the great revelation of what waits us beyond death, is straight-up cosmic horror: death is no escape, only a doorway to something worse. The reader gets a small glimpse of the thing clawing out of Mary’s mouth, and it’s just enough – the reader’s imagination will take care of the rest. And the wave of suicides and murders in the wake of the final event echo Call of Cthulhu with its communal madness. There’s a lot of excellent ideas beneath the surface, even if the surface occasionally feels a bit too pleasant – King’s homespun horror stylings are perhaps too cosy and sane for all-out Lovecraftian horror. Even with the grumbles, Revival is a great novel, with a wonderful, solid emotional core.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014 by Scribner. Visit the author’s site and get the new novel Finders Keepers (out in June)!

Baal by Robert R. McCammon

American paperback edition (Pocket Books)
American paperback edition (Pocket Books)

McCammon’s new novel The Border is out very soon from Subterranean Press, but here’s where it all began back in 1978; Baal is a very concise, pulpy and epic horror novel on a global scale, told in three acts.

Things kick off in seventies’ grimy America, as the future mom of the demon gets attacked on the street. She’s saved in the nick of time, but gets strange burn marks all over her body. Later, she gets pregnant by her husband and gives birth to an obviously evil baby boy. When the father tries to drown the titular demon-to-be, the mother kills him. The kid gets shuffled off to a series of orphanages. As he grows older, he adopts the name Baal and starts messing with the nuns and the priests, and turns his fellow orphans into disciples.

The second act moves the events to Kuwait, where people are going bananas over a mysterious religious leader. A theologist, Donald Naughton, goes to investigate and disappears. His colleague, James Virga, goes looking for Naughton and discovers that a now grown-up Baal is the one to blame for all the hubbub. He finds a helping hand in Michael, who seems to know a thing or two about what’s going on.

After a fake assassination attempt, Baal disappears, and Virga and Michael track him to Greenland for the final act. They find him and start skiing to the ocean. A cosmic battle between good and evil follows, with Virga the only survivor.

There’s an infectious energy to the novel; it’s bursting at the seams, the short length barely able to contain all the ideas. The first two thirds are excellent, with the first part echoing such classic horror as The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby. The second part in Kuwait is the high point, suffocating and claustrophobic, predating Dan Simmons‘ similarly atmospheric Song of Kali by more than half a decade. There’s also a spark of genius in keeping Baal out of the picture for most of the action, with the increasingly tumultuous events being observed through the eyes of outsiders Naughton and Virga.

British paperback edition (Sphere)
British paperback edition (Sphere)

But after Kuwait, there should’ve been more. Baal’s barely made his grand entrance when he fakes his own assassination and goes into hiding. The scenes in Greenland are good and the milieu’s great, but it’s almost as if the novel is running out of steam by that point. It lumbers to its inevitable conclusion, but after all the excellent set-up, Baal kind of goes out with a whimper.

It’s obvious Baal was McCammon’s first novel, written when he was only 25 years old, and for a time he kept it out of print (along with several other early ones) for that very reason. Baal is nowhere as well-developed or evenly told as, for instance (my favourite) They Thirst, but it has its merits. The youthful exuberance of it all makes it a joyous read, and even back then, McCammon’s brisk use of language was in evidence. The Kuwait chapters alone are worth the visit. Baal doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights it aspires to, but it makes a great effort, and in doing so points the way for McCammon’s later novels. A brave first novel.

**** (4/5)

First published in 1978. Visit the author’s site and get McCammon’s new sf/horror novel The Border (out in May 2015) from Subterranean Press!

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!

Midnight’s Lair by Richard Laymon

midnightslairA group of tourists visiting Mordock’s Cave is plunged into darkness when the lights go out. Their guide, Darcy, leads them to the elevators that go up to the hotel on the surface, but they are similarly out of order. Soon, the elevators come crashing down in flames. There’s rumoredly another way out beyond the sealed-off end of the cavern, so they go and break down the wall built in the 1920s to get there. As they break through, something grabs one of them; and soon the tourists are fighting for their lives.

Richard Laymon peels off the layers of the story slowly and deliberately; everything’s connected, but it’s up to the reader to connect the dots. It’s a truly well executed structure, the horror rising not so much from what’s on the page, but from what’s implied. The creatures trapped in their small, sealed-off world beyond the wall may be the enemy, but they’re also victims of an unspeakably horrific crime that’s continued for over half a century, from father to son.

The action in the present doesn’t really match the epic horror of the backstory, but it does its job; the impenetrable darkness of the cavern lends a nice touch to the already claustrophobic setting. The characters are likeable, and even a budding teenage serial killer, whose actions begin the events that unravel the legacy of horror, occasionally comes off as strangely sympathetic. As it’s a Laymon novel there’s sex, of course; but it never overwhelms the story, instead it plays into it. A fast read at a concise 250 pages, with brisk pacing that never lets down, Midnight’s Lair is one of Laymon’s best.

****½ (4.5/5)

Originally published in 1988 under the pseudonym Richard Kelly. Visit the official Richard Laymon site

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!

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 Hand That Feeds by Michael W. Garza

handthatfeedsA kid stumbles out of a forest, covered in black ooze; soon after, he dies. The parents, already beside themselves, are in for a bigger shock when the newly deceased child suddenly gets up – and has a whole new appetite. A little later he eats the family dog, then the family doctor.

We’ve all seen the movies: the kid, Alex, is a zombie, and the best thing would be to shoot him in the head. The novel, however, takes a more realistic approach; the parents, John and Angela, pretty much go insane, the domineering Angela even more so, dragging poor John along for the nightmare. Angela, watching in pain as her son weakens, makes a logical deduction: eating the doctor made Alex stronger, so feeding him similar meals should keep him hale and hearty.

They do the Hellraiser thing; Angela seduces men and brings them home for Alex. One of the meals, however, runs away after having been nibbled on by Alex, thus planting the seed for the zombie apocalypse we all know and love.

It’s an intimate family portrait gone crazy, with the end times as a backdrop; the escalating lunacy of the parents reaches tragicomic heights as the novel progresses. There’s a wonderful scene later in the novel where John and Angela try to kidnap someone from their neighbour’s house; it’s a very rare thing to root for the other guy, to hope for the main character to fail and to fail big.

A bleak story that causes such conflicting emotions takes skill to pull off, and happily Michael W. Garza succeeds; the writing is crisp and efficient, the parents’ loss of sanity and common decency is well handled and the slow progression of the epidemic plays out nicely. The source of Alex’s predicament is never explained, making the beginning of the novel feel almost like weird fiction.

The characterisations are strong, especially John comes off as a nicely fleshed-out character. He does go through a rather traditional zombie movie hero phase in the middle, but by that point it’s just refreshing that he gets out of the house for a while, away from the pressure of family obligations. Still, in a brilliant flash of black humour, he cannot help thinking about a fellow survivor what a good meal he’d make for his son; now that’s true fatherly love.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2013 by Severed Press. Visit the author’s site!