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!

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