Monday, October 27, 2014

Michael Phillip Cash--More Tales of Ghosts and Hauntings

The Flip
Michael Philip Cash
2014, trade paperback, 392pp.

The After House
Michael Philip Cash
2014, trade paperback, 194 pp.

With his earlier novel, Stillwell: A Haunting on Long Island (review at http://michaelrcollings.blogspot.com/2014/04/michael-philip-cash-stillwell-haunting.html), Michael Philip Cash offered a ghost story that participated in horror but concentrated on healing a broken family. It juxtaposed the gruesomeness of hauntings with the meticulously detailed sense of lives gone off track. And, in the end, it brought both elements to a satisfying conclusion
Now Cash continues his exploration of things ghostly and things ghastly in two more novels, set on Long Island but centered on the quaint fishing village of Cold Spring Harbor. In The Flip, Julia and Brad Evans purchase the old Hemmings House (for house read decrepit mansion) on Bedlam Street…perhaps not a particularly auspicious location for a real-estate venture but an ideal one for a novel that brings its characters closer and closer to madness. With the same deft eye for description and setting that supported Stillwell so nicely, Cash constructs the perfect environment for another threatened marriage and another haunting—this time by a Victorian couple who simply do not wish to leave their house. Just as the living couple experience strain and tension in their marriage, so too the ghostly couple lived through—and died in—conjugal difficulties. The plot of the novel rests on reconciling both couples, on renewing and restoring love and marriages among the living and the dead.
The After House again visits Cold Spring Harbor, where Remy Galway and her daughter Olivia are picking up the pieces of their lives. Remy’s husband, Scott, has hidden an affair from her…and a son. Following their divorce, Remy purchases an old cottage near the center of the village—and things begin to go wrong. A ghost enters the picture, rather in the manner of Captain Daniel Gregg in the classic 1947 film, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The revenant of an eighteenth-century whaling captain,  Eli Gaspar has haunted the cottage for decades—for generations, actually—with various tenants accommodating themselves to sharing the home with him. Little has changed in the cottage, until Remy and Olivia begin making it their own. New paint, new furnishings, new playthings: and none of them to Captain Gaspar’s taste. He finds Remy acceptable but Olivia seems to him an “imp of Hades”—not the least because she can see him—and he determines to frighten them away.
At first.
Before he gets his plans fully laid, several things happen. Someone else begins threatening Remy’s peaceful life, firebombing her yoga studio and running her car off a snowy road. Remy meets the handsome and eligible mayor, and Eli is startled to find that he distrusts the man and feels inordinately protective toward Remy.  She on the other hand is equally startled to discover that in spite of her distrust of men and her raw emotions she is irresistibly drawn toward Hugh.
At roughly the same point in both The Flip and The After House, Cash introduces a third level of characters, the sentinels, two ghostly civil servants whose task it is to resolve the problems the living face (without directly interfering) and to make it possible for the ghosts to move onward and relinquish their need for an earthly ‘home.’ Marum and Sten watch from the sidelines, and occasionally from the ceilings, nudging here and there as needed until Julie and Brad, Remy and Olivia, and their respective ghosts are united, their needs resolved, and their lives made fulfilling.
The reference to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir seems particularly appropriate to both novels. There is the same sense of gentleness in the world that encompasses both humans and ghosts, the same sense that ultimately all can go well for everyone involved. There is romance in both novels, although that is not the primary theme of either. Unity, peace, love, respect, and open-mindedness to change: these are the ideas that The Flip and The After House explore. And both are solid, entertaining reads.




Friday, October 24, 2014

Jason V Brock--A DARKE PHANTASTIQUE: ENCOUNTERS WITH THE UNCANNY AND OTHER MAGICAL THINGS

A Darke Phantastique: Encounters with the Uncanny and Other Magical Things
Jason V Brock, ed.
Cycatrix Press, 2014
Trade paperback, 728 pages


At 728 pages, it would seem that Jason Brock’s anthology, A Darke Phantastique, has the thickness, the length, and the physical weight to qualify for instant tome-dom; at the least, it meets the size requirements to be categorized with long, heavy, densely academic-looking, dry-as-dust, antiquated volumes that no one ever willingly picks up.
Except that in this instance, size is the least of the characteristics that immediately strikes readers. No one seeing the richly evocative cover by Samuel Araya, then opening the book at random to be greeted by page after page of stunning interior artwork, will ever shrug A Darke Phntastique aside as a tome. Even before reading any of the stories (including a television script and a number of poems), readers will note that the illustrations on almost every page and the highly creative use of margins and print overlays throughout do more than illustrate—they illuminate, both in the sense of widening and deepening the stories themselves and in the sense of creating a seamless blend of verbal and visual that has its beginnings in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. That many of the pieces are manipulated photographs, blending modern technique with ancient effect, only serves to make the experience more remarkable. In spite of these excellences, however, A Dark Phantastique is not a coffee-table art book; the art serves to highlight stories, many already remarkable in their own right.
The title and the subtitle are crucial to understanding what the book contains. It is about the “darke phantastique”—both words suggesting, with the art inside, an awareness of past traditions. The additional –e on the first throws the phrase back several centuries to late Medievel, Renaissance, and early Modern English. Phantastique is an archaic form of fantastic, stemming from a time when the word referred more directly than now to things grotesque or bizarre, when fancy was a pejorative. As with the other elements already considered, the words suggest a collision between past and present, between staid literary traditions and stories that determinedly expand, undermine, and re-define those traditions.
The subtitle provides even more information: “Encounters with the Uncanny and Other Magical Things.” Here is where the anthology differentiates from more narrowly conceived collations of horror, science fiction, or fantasy. In the 1970s, Tzvetan Todorov defined the fantastic using structural principals. During its telling, a story may hesitate between the “fantastic uncanny,” in which events seem impossible within the confines of the world as we know it; and the “fantastic marvelous,” in which events can ultimately be traced to possibilities within the real world. For the duration of that hesitation, readers are in the realm of fantasy; once readers decide that the events either are possible, or are not possible, the story shifts to the uncanny (unknown) and depends upon supernatural or inexplicable causations; or to the marvelous (wondrous or surprising) and depends upon a reexamination of physical laws.
Taken together, the title of this book warns readers that what follows will be grotesqueries of the darker sort, stories that will be unsettling, discomforting, frightening, even perhaps horrifying. And the subtitle shifts and clarifies that intention: the stories will be mysterious, enigmatic, baffling, and bizarre. They will be, in a word, magical.
The overall tone of the anthology is introduced in a 1951 essay by Ray Bradbury on “The Beginnings of Imagination,” followed by Jason V Brock’s  “An Abiding Darkness, A Phantastique Light,” a fairly lengthy discussion of what readers might expect. The bulk of the book  divides into thematic sections: “Magical Realities,” “Lost Innocence,” “Forbidden Knowledge,” “Hidden Truths,” and “Uncanny Encounters”—each focusing on an element of the book’s title and subtitle while at the same time using wording that implies both tradition and innovation.
Of course, all of this is just prefatory to the most important constituent: more than fifty stories, poems, and (one) teleplay. That is where the true magic reveals itself, whether in a relatively direct ghost story like Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Case of the Four-Acre Haunt”; a shorter, highly metaphorical tale about monsters, strangers, perceptions, and revenge, such as Paul Kane’s “Michael the Monster,” in which Halloween takes on a new significance; a horrific transformation of a childhood tale in William F. Nolan’s “The Last Witch”; or symbolic pieces that border on (and occasionally cross into) surrealism, such as Nathaniel Lee’s “The Wisest Stone and the Zoo” and Derek Künsken’s “The Buddha Circus.” Some are short permutations on expectation, as in E.E. King’s “Three Fables”; others are extended experiments in language and form that expand the definition of narrative and story, including Jason Maurer’s “’In Your Dark’: Differing Strategies in Subhuman Integration Through Monster Academies” and S.T. Joshi’s “You’ll Reach There in Time.”
For anyone interested in the potentials for wedding traditional motifs to current social concerns, the sheer range of themes is inviting. Several stories deal with sexuality, from rigidly defined to subtly (and not so subtly) evolving—as well as sexual expression ranging from homosexuality to transsexuality to incest. A number of stories embody the empowerment of women; others deal with subtle difficulties inherent in religious belief, in the whole issue of diversity, in something as apparently direct as vegetarianism.

This is one of those few anthologies that captures the pulse of its time. The first time I came across such a book, it was definitely a tome—1080 pages long, a thick, grey-bound book with no dust jacket, with no illustrations at all, dusty from sitting on a shelf in a used-book store for who-knew-how-long. The volume was copyrighted 1944; I bought it in about 1968 for—as I recall—one dollar…fairly big money for a poor student back then. I opened it…and was both transformed and transported.
Reading Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser, introduced me to what horror could accomplish as well as to seminal stories from the finest practitioners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I don’t know how many times I’ve dipped into that book over the decades; I’m rather surprised that it has held up as well as it has. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything—at least in terms of being able to trace the genesis of my engagement with things dark and frightening. (For further comments on the Wise and Fraser book, please see: http://michaelrcollings.blogspot.com/2012/09/where-horror-isnt.html).
I can easily imagine new generations of readers opening A Darke Phantastique: Encounters with the Uncanny and Other Magical Things, becoming entranced initially by the artistry of the book, then progressing into the stories themselves and discovering new ways of looking at a new century of darkness…and new tales to explore it.



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

World Horror Convention, Provo UT, 2016



The organizers of the World Horror Convention 2016 (http://whc2016.org/home.html), to be held in Provo UT, have invited me to serve as Academic Guest. Because so many of my connections with WHC and the Horror Writers Association are through FaceBook and other internet outlets, it seems appropriate to list some of my qualifications for this signal honor.

Over the years, I have published extensively in and about science fiction, fantasy, and horror, emphasizing the works of Stephen King. In addition to more than 120 essays and articles on writing and genre; and 500 reviews, the majority dealing with dark fantasy and horror, I have published the following (boldface indicates a focus on horror):

2014:
C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy: Essays in Genre (Literary Study)
Chain of Evil: The JournalStone Guide to Writing Darkness (Writing techniques; incorporates Writing Darkness, 2012 Bram Stoker Award® Finalist for Nonfiction)
Michaelbrent Collings’ The Billy Saga: A Literary Study
Orson Scott Card: Penetrating to the Gentle Heart (Literary Study)
Taliesin: The Joseph Smith/King Arthur Sonets (Poetry)
2013:

Milton's Century: A Timeline of the Literary, Political, Religious, and Social Context of John Milton's Life (Chronology)

2012:

A Verse to Horror: An Abecedary of Monsters and the Monstrous (Poetry; 2012 Bram Stoker Award® Finalist for Poetry)

BlueRose and Other Chapbooks (Poetry)                                           

Hai-(And Assorted Other)-Ku (Poetry)

2011:

Deep Music: A Selection of L.D.S. Musical Readings (Poetry)

Devil’s Plague (Novel, mystery)

 Serpent’s Tooth (Novel, mystery)

Shadow Valley (Novel, horror)

Som Certaine Sonets (Poetry)

Static! (Novel, horror)

The Nephiad: An Epic in XII Books (Poetry)

2010:

In Endless Morn of Light: Moral Agency in Milton’s Universe (Literary study)

Matrix: Echoes of Growing Up West—Autobiographical Poems (Poetry)

Tales through Time (Poetry)

The Slab (Novel, horror)

Three Tales of Omne (Short fiction, science fiction)

Toward Other Worlds: Perspectives on John Milton, C. S. Lewis, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, and Others (Essays, literary studies)

Wer Means Man, and Other Tales of Wonder and Terror (Short fiction, science fiction and horror)

2009

In the Void: Poems of Science Fiction, Myth and Fantasy, and Horror. Introduction by Orson Scott Card (Poetry)

Singer of Lies: A Science-Fantasy Novel

The Art and Craft of Poetry: Twenty Exercises toward Mastery (Writing techniques)

Wordsmith, Volume One: The Veil of Heaven (Novel, science-fantasy)

Wordsmith, Volume Two: The Thousand Eyes of Flame (Novel, science-fantasy)

2008:

In Darkness Drawn: Poems (Horror)

Stephen King is Richard Bachman (Literary study)

2007:

The House Beyond the Hill (Novel, horror)

2005:

Growing Up West: Poems

2002:

All Calm, All Bright: Christmas Offerings (Poetry, short fiction)

‘Horror Plum’d’: An International Stephen King Bibloiography and Guide

2001:

Storyteller: The Official Orson Scott Card Bibliography and Guide

2000:
Hauntings: The Official Peter Straub Bibliography
1999:
Elementals: Auto-Reductive Sonets in Major and Minor Modes (Poetry)
Nestlings of a Dark God: Poems—Science Fiction, Fantasy, Myth, Horror
1997:
Scaring Us to Death: The Impact of Stephen King on Popular Culture (Literary study)
1996:
The Work of Stephen King; An Annotated Bibliography and Guide
1990:
Dark Transformations: Deadly Visions of Change (Poetry, science fiction and horror)
In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card (Literary study; incorporated into Orson Scott Card: Penetrating to the Gentle Heart)
1987:
Card Catalogue: The Science Fiction and Fantasy of Orson Scott Card (Bibliography)
The Stephen King Phenomenon (Literary Study)
1986:
Brian Aldiss (Literary study)
Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Papers from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, ed. Michael R. Collings (Anthology of literary studies)
The Annotated Guide to Stephen King: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography of the Works of America’s Premier Horror Writer
The Films of Stephen King (Literary Study)
1985:
Naked to the Sun: Dark Visions of Apocalypse (Poetry, science fiction, fantasy, and horror)
The Many Facets of Stephen King (Literary study)
The Shorter Words of Stephen King, with David A. Engebretson (Literary study)
Stephen King as Richard Bachman (Literary study)
1983:
Piers Anthony (Literary study)
1974:
A Season of Calm Weather (Poetry)

My short fiction has appeared in the following anthologies:

Blood Type: An Anthology of Vampire SF on the Cutting Edge, ed. Robert S. Wilson (2013, 2014)

Space Eldritch II: The Haunted Stars, ed. Nathan Shumate (2013)

Yondering: The First Borgo Press Book of Science Fiction Stories, ed. Robert Reginald (2013)

Space Eldritch, ed. Nathan Shumate (2012)

Cthulhu Mythos Megapack, ed. John Betancourt (2012)

Vampire Megaback, ed. John Betancourt (2012)

 

I have served as Guest of Honor, Academic Guest, Poetry Guest, Special Guest, or Guest for

Salt Lake City Comic Con, September 2012

Salt Lake City FanXperience, April 2012

World Horror Convention 2012

World Horror Convention 2008

Into the West—Tolkien Festival, 2007, 2008

Life, the Universe, and Everything—The Marion K. ‘Doc’ Smith Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1992-2012

EnderCon 2002

MythCon (Conference of the Mythopoeic Society), 1994
HorrorCon’89, 1989


Since May, 2012, I have been the Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publications, a small-press concentrating on horror fiction. I have edited novels and collections by Benjamin Kane Ethridge, J.G. Faherty, Patrick Freivald, Rick Hautala, Jonathan Maberry, Brian Matthews, Joe McKinney, Douglas Wynne, and others.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

NIGHTMARE CARNIVAL, ed. by Ellen Datlow


Nightmare Carnival
Ellen Datlow, ed.
Dark Horse Press, September 2014
Trade paperback, 383 pp., $19.99


The title Nightmare Carnival is both precise and descriptive. The fifteen tales collected in the anthology are nightmares—of the purposeful, literary sort—that, like the smell of circus peanuts, linger in the mind to be replayed again and again. And they are a carnival, with its etymological evocation of flesh, complete with exotic animals fanged and unfanged, ghoulish and ghastly clowns, lithe trapezists seemingly defying death (although death always wins), and an assortment of freaks…whether one applies the term to physical aberrations or psychological ones.
The first story, N. Lee Woods’ “Scapegoats,” is a powerfully horrifying glimpse into the human need to assign blame, even when we are ourselves the cause of whatever has damaged us. In this instance, the scapegoat is an elephant, condemned for doing what any creature—sentient or not—would do…striking back at something that has caused it pain. The initial conflict seems minor, but the consequences, and the need for someone or something to pay, grow with each paragraph, culminating in the first overtly horror-driven scene in the collection, one that is almost too revulsive to bear. And yet, we must; it speaks to and about us.
Priya Sharma’s “The Firebrand” and Dennis Danvers “Swan Song and Then Some” are about kindling passions. They focus on the compelling power of love, even when that love is tied inextricably with death. And they are about the underlying human need to experience vicarious danger, symbolized by the circus/carnival with its juxtaposition of pomp and glitter and color with the ever-present threat (or apparent threat) that wild animals might attack, that a trapeze artist might fall, that someone might actually die while entertaining paying customers. And in the latter tale, Alexandra fulfils that desire in all, singing her “swan song” as she plummets from the tent’s top rigging, holding one impossible, indescribable note as she plunges to the ground, and to her bloody, terrifying death…every night and two times on Sunday.
Nick Mamatas’ “Work, Hook, Shoot, and Rip” and Terry Dowling’s “Corpse Rose” both play with the carnival’s unique jargon. Words that seem pedestrian in the outside world become sinister, threatening, in the world of the carnival, and as characters—and readers—understand more and more about the words used, the darkness beneath the lights reveals itself.
Jeffrey Ford’s “Hibbler’s Minions” diminishes the carnival to its smallest possible manifestation: a flea circus. These fleas, however, are not ordinary—nothing presented in Nightmare Carnival is ordinary. They rise from the dust bowls of the 1930s to infect and devour, first animals, then fellow performers. And, if they get their way, all of humanity.

It would be possible to highlight any of the stories in Nightmare Carnival, point out excellences in each. Datlow is a first-rank editor, and her choices ring true throughout. Several stories are told from in third-person present-tense (e.g., “She walks away….”), which I normally find distracting and less effective than past-tense narratives…except that here, there are  specific reasons for that choice, pay-offs for readers that validate authors’ decisions and Datlow’s selections. And that comes as near as I can to a negative comment on the anthology. In all, it is strong, with fascinating characters, conflicts, and settings; it is intriguing that the term carnival can be made to mean so many things and incorporate to many varieties of horror…including one bona fide werewolf.
If you have a lingering fear of clowns, perhaps stemming back to reading Stephen King’s IT on a dark and cloudy night; if you are not certain why lions can be so intimidating, even locked in their cages; if you wonder what life must be like for those for whom the anonymity of a carnival back lot is the only choice; if, in a word, you suffer from any form of “carnival nightmares,” don’t let this book pass by.
It’s a killer.
  





Monday, October 13, 2014

John F.D. Taff, THE END IN ALL BEGINNINGS: Five Assays of Humanity

The End in All Beginnings
John F.D. Taff
Gray Matter Press, 2014
Trade paperback, 320 pp.

Just under half a century ago, I discovered a personal “tell” that let me know when a performance had touched me deeply. Several friends, all of us college freshmen, had just watched Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lord Jim. As we walked back to the dorm, they chatted—as freshmen tend to do—about art direction, nuances of performance and location shots, subtlety of imagery, and complexity of symbolism…everything, indeed, except the story.
Normally, I would have joined them; any number of late-night conversations intent on solving the problems of the universe had convinced me that I could hold my own with them. But this time there was something different, something odd.
I found that I couldn’t talk about the film.
The story had resonated so strongly with me that to open my mouth and break what had become a powerful and meaningful silence was simply impossible.
 That experience—with minor variations—has recurred many times since. When I finished reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for the first time. When I read John Milton’s Paradise Lost in one sitting as an undergraduate; I was supposed to be studying for a final exam but the story captured me and suddenly I was turning the last page of Book XII and wishing there were more. Listening to the final “Prisoners’ Chorus” of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Hamburg Opera House near the end of my two-year church mission in Germany. When I finished Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles for a graduate course in Victorian literature. When I finished Stephen King’s It, reading a typescript he had sent six months before the novel was published…and, yes, it was roughly the size of a human head.
There have been more examples over the years, some expected and of short duration; some unexpected and sudden, almost paralyzing in the intensity of emotions generated. But all signaling that I have read or seen something that has changed me and my perceptions of the world in important ways.
The last time it happened, I had just finished John F.D. Taff’s collection of horror novellas, The End in All Beginnings.

By that, I do not mean to suggest that the book should be read as a masterwork of world literature; that would place too much weight on a series of relatively short tales in what many might consider an ephemeral sub-genre…if they consider horror literature at all. And it would be to wrench Taff’s intention in ways that would be unfair to him and to his stories.
No, my experience—my period of quiet, of inability to talk about what I had read (in fact, I am writing this two weeks later)—stemmed from the fact that he elected to tell stories that would matter, that would grab imaginations  and direct them to new and unanticipated places.
The first, “What Becomes God,” uses a nicely ambiguous phrase to introduce what initially seems a perfectly toned discussion of life, death, love, loss, and God. Every word contributes to a nostalgic re-creation of childhood lost, of a boy coming to grips with disease and death for the first time. Every word, that is, until the key phrase—“It was the blood”—when everything changes…and what comes after is awesomely horrific (using awesome in its deeper senses) as the boy comes face to face with the consequences of his desires and his prayers.
“Object Permanence” begins in the darkness of nightmare, in much the same universe as “What Becomes God” ended. In this case, a man in an insane asylum endures visions and hallucinations that, had they been real, would have driven anyone beyond the limits of sanity. Chris Stadler’s story embraces horror when he realizes that in the most fundamental ways, his hallucinations had been real, and that the only way to understand them and restore his shattered memories is to confront his home town, the ancient house in which he had been raised, and his great-aunt Olivia, the source of an evil that may be too powerful to stop.
“Love in the Time of Zombies” is an oddity among zombie tales in that one of the three main characters is a zombie—usually such tales use the walking dead merely as set dressing  that takes an occasional foray into destruction. The landscape is perfect: a small, isolated Midwestern town a hundred miles from nowhere, in which Durand Evars discovers that everyone is either dead or a zombie. Almost. The sole exception is Scott Gibbons, whose preoccupation turns out to be gaming. The two hole up in a huge warehouse-type store, with all of the provisions and protections they could hope for. Time passes…until Evars sees her, a beautiful young woman—unfortunately a zombie—with whom he immediately forms a distinctly one-sided attraction. And equally unfortunately, he is not the only one to do so.
“The Long, Long Breakdown” is set in the upper stories of a South Florida high-rise some fifteen years after the climate has shifted and drowned much of the world. Florida was the first to go, and since then the narrator and his seventeen-year-old daughter have lived within a circle defined by his ability to row their small boat safely from one ruin to another, collecting medicines, supplies, and most importantly books. He is content to remain as they are, essentially looking backward and remembering; he does not realize that his daughter has no memories of the other world and is instead beginning to look forward, into a future he cannot imagine. They are at an equilibrium in their desires…until she discovers a telescope and, through its lenses, sees the unimaginable. How each handles the revelation is the crux of the story, one of the most powerful in the collection in its simplicity and in it systematic ‘breakdown’ of old beliefs and fears in the face of the new.
“Visitation” crosses genre boundaries several times. It begins as science fiction, as Fenlan Daulk is notified that he has won the annual Galactic Lottery—a two-week stay on Visitation, long known as the most haunted planet in the cosmos. Having just lost his wife, he is stunned at the possibility of seeing her again, and crushed by his knowledge that such things as ghosts cannot exist. Or can they? As his visit progresses, and his story moves into the realm of ghost story and fantasy (or does it?), he comes to discover closely guarded secrets that pass far beyond the temporal grief of one man and encompass the existence of life beyond anything he could have imagined.

In each of the five tales, Taff provides carefully nuanced, skillfully balanced components—storytelling, nostalgia, horror, human emotion—to work from beginnings to ultimate ends…sometimes death, sometimes things far worse, and sometimes something magnificent. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Harry Shannon, BITERS--The Biter Bit

 Biters
Harry Shannon
JournalStone Doubledown #4
April 2014


Biters substantiates the axiom that the best zombie books are not about zombies at all—and this one is an excellent zombie tale.
The eponymous creatures are not quite zombies. They are the survivors of a mutated virus. In their madness they look, act, and eat like zombies, so the differences are minimal. Also like zombies, they create more of themselves through a simple bite…although they are rarely satisfied with just a nibble.  They are incipiently present, of course, throughout the novel, most often as a muted threat, as ragged hordes straggling across the Nevada landscape on the lookout for humans for dinner.
Yet in another sense, zombies—Biters—are at the center of the tale. In the beginning, the main characters seem fully alive, vigorous, survivors of a world dissolving into turmoil. Buck Ryan is one of them, although more mobile than most, driving his old Chevy truck through the death-lands of Nevada toward a small enclave surrounded by wire fencing and lit by strings of Christmas lights. His destination: a strip joint named The Pussy Parlor, operated by an old flame, Sarah Gallagher.
It takes a few highly atmospheric pages for the principle action to emerge, but shortly after arriving at the Parlor, Ryan is off again into the wilderness, full of plans to hijack a shipment of medicine, drugs, and other critical supplies salvaged from other small communities that didn’t survive the biters’ attacks. He will kill Sarah’s current lover—pimp, cohort, whatever term works best—and split the profits with her.
Once beyond the confines of the fence, Ryan again faces the desolation that humanity has become…in the image of a dilapidated farmhouse and its sole occupant, an emaciated dog that he debates about killing; in the image of betrayal as three men attack and savage another small group of refugees; and in the image of betrayal compounded by betrayal as he confronts the man he was sent out to kill.
By this time, the underlying suggestions of the title and the setting become increasingly clear: the true biters—the true villains of the piece, as it were—are not wandering mindlessly through the Nevada desert: they are huddled within the enclave, within The Pussy Parlor, within Buck Ryan and every other ostensibly healthy human in the story. All are zombies. All act only according to their own appetites. All are infected…with greed, hatred, lust, to murder and destroy in a world that is all but dead.
And in the end, only Buck Ryan is given a choice—whether to join the human-biters or to remain fully human.
It is not an easy choice.

Biters is not an easy book. It is harsh, direct, sparing no details needed for the story to move to what almost seems a pre-ordained conclusion (in a cosmic sense, perhaps, certainly not in the sense that the story is predictable). The characters are strong, including the single biter kept captive in a cage outside the Parlor, almost an icon for everyone in the town, who seem free but cower behind their wire-walls as well.

Biters is coupled with Brett Talley’s remarkable The Reborn (for my review, see: http://michaelrcollings.blogspot.com/2014/09/brett-talley-reborn.html), comprising a volume of horrors as startling as it is well written.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

C.R. Asay, HEART OF ANNIHILATION: Strong and Promising

Heart of Annihilation
C.R. Asay
WiDō Publishing, 2014
Trade paperback, 330 pp.


Army Specialist Kris Rose has enough going. A long-missing father, the search for whom is finally turning up clues—most of which in the form of top-secret documents secreted among her personal effects. A tantalizing silver coin stamped with the letters RETHA, identical to ones found at the sites of disappearances similar to her father’s. A sudden spurt of hyper-aggressiveness from members of her own unit, accompanied by the sense that they not only would enjoy beating her up, but that several would clearly like to kill her. And now, the suspicion that the men are planning on slaughtering as-yet-unseen aliens, who might hold the final secret to Benjamin Rose’s disappearance.
So when, in the midst of hand-to-hand combat with several of her attackers, Rose abruptly discovers that she can send currents of living blue electricity through her body and stun—if not kill—her opponents, she realizes that nothing is quite as it has seemed and that finding her father has taken second-place to saving her own life and finding out who and what she is.
In intercut chapters, readers are introduced to a new character, Caz, a munitioner (i.e., one who designs weaponry)on Retha, a planet devoted to peace and serenity and whose people look upon munitioners with contempt. But Caz has inherited her parents’ directive from the Dimensional Congressional Council: to construct a weapon devastating enough to destroy a threat from any of the twelve alternate dimensions essentially sharing the planet—by destroying all life on that dimension.
Gradually, readers come to understand (no spoiler here, since the revelation comes early in the novel) that Rose is Caz, that for reasons that unravel as the story progresses, Rose shares a body and, to a degree a consciousness, with the most vicious murderer Retha has ever known…and Caz wants total control so that she can retrieve the mysterious ultimate weapon, the Heart of Annihilation, from its hiding place on Earth and wield it for her own purposes.
Thus Asay sets in motion a complex, carefully thought through story that balances military action-adventure aplenty, including hailstorm battles among humans and aliens alike; with strong infusions of alternate-world science fiction, complete with dimensional- and temporal-travel, aliens who are remarkably like humans except that they live on and control electricity, and the intriguing premise that one planet might house as many as thirteen planes or dimensions simultaneously, each in its own way a threat to the others.
Although not a traditional ‘horror’ novel, there is horror as well, initially in seeing the depths to which individuals will go to attain their own selfish, often unjustified ends. But the true horror evolves as Rose/Caz become aware of each other and struggle for dominance—Rose to save worlds, and Caz to destroy them. Here is a kind of monster that cannot be simply obliterated, that cannot be tamed, that can only be controlled and—at least Rose hopes so—contained.
There is even a touch of romance in Heart of Annihilation, although it is unconnected to the title’s imagery. Through much of her quest to understand and finally obtain the weapon, Rose is accompanied by the steadfast Sgt. Thurmond, who fights alongside her, takes bullets for her, sacrifices himself for her in any number of ways, and—once he realizes that she is actually two people, one he admires and one he can only hate—he begins to break down walls she has constructed through most of her life to isolate her from others.

By the end of the novel, much has been achieved. The Heart is in fact retrieved and…well, to explain more would be a spoiler. The true alien threat is recognized for what it actually is. Rose understands fully the kind of creature that inhabits her. And Rose and Thurmond share a tender moment in her hospital room. In the most important ways, the novel is a complete, self-contained story.
But much remains to be explored, primarily the tenuous relationship between Rose and Caz, both of whom want control of Rose’s body; the still-to-be-resolved riddle of Benjamin Rose’s disappearance and of his connections to the Rethans of the twelfth dimension; and the intersection of dimensions themselves, now that Rose, Thurmond, and others are aware of threats known and threats unknown from these parallel worlds
All in all, Heart of Annihilation is a strong first novel; a fast-paced read that should appeal to a wide range of readers; and the potential opening shot in what promises to be an intriguing multi-volume investigation into time and space, alternate worlds and alternate dimensions, and the fundamental questions of who and what constitutes a human being.    


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Robert McCammon, BOY'S LIFE: A Look Back

McCammon, Robert.  Boy's Life. Pocket Books, 1991. 


McCammon’s Boy’s Life is a charmer. It mesmerizes, fascinates, tantalizes; it does all of the things that McCammon’s readers take for granted that he will do in his novels. And it does them unusually well.
Coming off books such as — Stinger, The Wolf’s Hour, and especially the non-supernatural thriller, MineBoy’s Life at first seems a radical shift in direction. The prefatory material presents the story to follow as autobiography, the tale of Cory Jay Mackenson, born and raised in a small Alabama town and now a forty-year-old author who no longer has the same outlook on life his narrator has. The story proper begins with a moment of terror, as Cory and his father stumble onto the scene of a crime that recurs as a motif throughout the novel. But Boy’s Life is not really about that crime, or about Cory’s attempts to solve it and by doing so return his father to normal. It is, in McCammon’s own words, a story about magic:
Zephyr was a magic place. Spirits walked in the moonlight.…
We had a dark queen who was one hundred and six years old. We had a gunfighter who saved the life of Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral. We had a monster in the river, and a secret in the lake. We had a ghost that haunted the road behind the wheel of a black dragster with flames on the hood. We had a Gabriel and a Lucifer, and a rebel that rose from the dead. We had an alien invader, a boy with a perfect arm, and we had a dinosaur loose on Merchants Street.
It was a magic place. (3)
McCammon warns us early on what to expect; what we do not expect is the gradual way each of the impossibilities mentioned in that paragraph is adroitly woven into a simple story of a child maturing, told with the insight of adult years but preserving the sense of childlike innocence and involvement with wonder. In several of its ambiguous senses, Boy’s Life is an ideal title for this story. It is the life of a boy, imagined by a boy, lived by a boy, the kind of life any boy might wish for, re-created by a man struggling to rediscover the boy in himself. And because it is a story about imagination, it is difficult to locate the exact moments when Boy’s Life ceases to be nostalgic pseudo-autobiography and shifts imperceptibly but definitively into terror, horror, fantasy, wishful-thinking made flesh.
Cory’s adventures twine about themselves as he creates a vision of life in 1964 (an intriguing preamble to the world that generated Mary Terror in Mine). It is an unsettling world. A President has been shot. Big business is beginning to push out smaller, local producers. Civil Rights activists are threatening ingrained bastions of hatred and prejudice. Pets die. Friends die. Things are changing, and the boy (like any child on the cusp of adulthood) is unable to stop that change.
But beyond this, Cory is able to see a world even more intriguing. Boy’s Life is every boy’s fantasy life made real. If a pet dies, prayer can bring it back to life — but, as Cory discovers, cannot make it whole again. In the imaginative world of a twelve-year-old, Invaders from Mars may in fact land in the forests just outside of home and make the adults behave strangely. And if here is a villain to be sought, a murderer to be discovered, why…there’s no reason in the world why he cannot be a Nazi spy whose cover is finally penetrated by the sleuthing of a single small boy.
Again and again, McCammon allows his narrative to swirl in gentle self-recursive currents, reminiscent of Bradbury at his most poetical, then intrude a moment of fantasy or horror or surprise that disrupts the story just enough to catch the reader by surprise. Then, that crisis safely passed, the story returns to its lulling currents until the next one arises. The result is a book unlike anything McCammon had before written, yet an inevitable one. Having successfully investigated most of the standard fare of contemporary horror — vampires, werewolves, revenants and ghosts, alien BEM’s, shapeshifting monsters, Poesque cannibals, Amazons, and even that most compelling of all modern images, nuclear holocaust — McCammon here anatomizes the imagination that brought all of them to life. Boy’s Life is a story of magic, all right, but a peculiar kind of magic that is as ‘real’ as the ‘reality’ is ostensibly opposes.

Try it. It will surprise you, engage you, entertain you, and at the oddest moment, define you and the world you live in. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

TRICK OR TREAT!

Looking for a five-star HALLOWEEN TREAT?



Check out 
A Verse To Horrors: An Abecedary of Monsters and Things Monstrous

For the price of a greeting card (and a lot less for the Kindle version!), you receive over 150 quick descriptions of Monsters and All Things Monstrous…each one a LIMERICK!

The list includes:
50-Foot Monsters
The Abyss
Aliens
Anacondas
Ants
Ape-Men
Atom Bombs
Basilisk
Bates Motel
Bats  
Beetles
Bigfoot
Birds
Black Cat
The Blob
The Bride of Frankenstein
Bugg-Shaggog
Cerberus
Clams
The Colour out of Space
Crab Monsters
The Crawling Eye
The Creature from the Black Lagoon

And MANY, MANY MORE
           
Why limericks? Well, because…

The Limerick’s a short bit of verse,
Elegant, witty, and terse;
At times it’s risqué
(But that’s a cliché),
At its best, it is slightly perverse.

When Monsters and Limericks meet
The result, I think, is a treat—
A curt little piece,
A verbal caprice,
With a frisson of terror that’s sweet.

That’s why I chose this verse form,
Avoiding ones closer to norm—
It seemed just a tweak
That might cause some pique…,
And monsters refuse to conform!

There’s nothing in here but good fun
(Though lines may appear overdone);
It’s mostly for play,
And a moment to pay
Homáge to the ones we would shun.

So this abecedary beckons
And asks that you take a few seconds
To savor a joke
Or treatment baroque
Of the monsters with whom we must reckon.

Hal Bodner says of A Verse to Horrors:
 “Michael Collings' collection of limerickal (is that even a word?) monsters from A to Z is just a delight to read. I actually had to go through and read it twice as those damned limericks are addictive and you just sort of zip through them to get to the next gem. A VERSE TO HORRORS is both sweet and clever without being contrived or precious. It's the kind of book every horror fan should buy, read, enjoy and then put in the guest room on the nightstand for your over night guests to enjoy -- and then get ready to buy another copy because your guests are gonna love it, steal it and take it home to put in THEIR guest rooms.”

And Dave Butler adds:
This Abecedary is a collection of limericks about monsters.
“Yes, ALL of the poems are limericks. Which turns out to be awesome. They are, quite simply -- and this is a difficult thing to achieve -- hilarious, and the word 'bucket' doesn't appear once.
They are also brainy. They cover the vast horror-facing waterfront of literature (e.g., The Colour Out of Space, Frankenstein's Monster, Faust, The Raven, The Shining), film (e.g., Frogs, Vincent Price, Young Frankenstein), thought (what is the role of Evolution in monstrogenesis?), folklore (e.g., snipes and jackalopes), history (serial killers and other human monsters), and culture (e.g., Quetzalcoatl, what makes the devil the devil?) broadly and well, where exhaustiveness, because of the vastness of the genre, is impossible.
There are so many hits here, any adult reader will laugh repeatedly. Real horror aficionados won't be able to stop.