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!

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The Narrows by Ronald Malfi

thenarrowsA town already on the ropes just can’t catch a break in The Narrows, a 2012 novel by Ronald Malfi. Instead, the few remaining townsfolk in the Rust Belt town are faced with floods, an infestation of bats, and as a nice, juicy cherry on top  vampiric creatures with a taste for brain-bacon.

The events take off with a corpse that arrives with the floodwaters. Soon there’s a spate of cattle mutilations, as local cows get their brains scooped out. Kids start disappearing as well, only to return as nightmarish nosferatus that vomit acid to subdue their victims (and to soften their skulls, so they can get to the juicy part inside).

There’s a wonderful sense of inevitability to these mindless, bottom-feeding carrions; they are like the Langoliers, a force of nature if you will, swooping down on a dying town to finish it off. A crucial element in the order of things, same as bacteria.

But they’re also a bit of a one trick pony; they vomit acid, but that’s basically it for most of the novel, despite the decidedly Lovecraftian finale. Most townsfolk are helpless in the face of such creatures, but some struggle on as the story unravels in a cinematic fashion, with multiple viewpoint characters. Most important of them is Ben, the local police officer.

But the main character is the town. The novel becomes almost a social treatise in urban decay, as the narrative maps the resigned mood of the town and its few remaining residents. It all amounts to a mighty gritty reality, giving a nice leg up to the imagined horrors that follow.

As usual, Malfi’s writing is exceptionally good throughout; the man is a truly gifted storyteller, who can spin sentences and pace action like none other. But it’s at the end, as pieces get picked up and the survivors look to the future, that the novel goes into emotional high gear; the endings of the storylines are left open, with possible destinies the reader can only begin to imagine. The town might be dead, but the characters go on.

**** (4/5)