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


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
Atom Bombs
Bates Motel
Black Cat
The Blob
The Bride of Frankenstein
The Colour out of Space
Crab Monsters
The Crawling Eye
The Creature from the Black Lagoon

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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Personal Poetry Inventory

Occasionally all writers feel the need to step back and assess how well they are achieving their goals. This can be especially important for poets, since it can become all too easy to lose the concentration, the focus essential to that particular verbal art.  

Here is an excerpt from my The Art and Craft of Poetry: Twenty Exercises Toward Mastery (Wildside, 2009, 2014) designed to provide an overview of what we expect from our poetry, who we are as poets, what techniques we use (often excluding other possibilities), how nearly we are satisfied with the 

Personal Poetry Inventory

1.      Three reasons why I write
2.      Three reasons why I write poetry [as opposed to other worthwhile genres]
3.      Three purposes I want my poetry to achieve
4.      Three strategies I use to achieve those purposes
5.      Three devices/structures/techniques I find particularly useful in my poetry
6.      Reasons why those specific devices/structures/techniques are important in my poetry
7.      Three devices/structures/techniques I rarely use in my poetry
8.      Reasons why I choose not to use those devices, structures, or techniques
9.      Three ways I know when a poem is finished
10.  I consider myself a
q  Formalist, i.e., I frequently use traditional forms and structures, including
q  Rhyme as a primary musical device
q  Meter as a primary rhythmic device
q  Stanzas of pre-determined line count
q  Relatively regular line-lengths
q  Sonnets
q  Quatrains and/or Triplets
q  Ballads
q  Other
q  Syllabic poet, i.e., I frequently use forms based primarily on syllable count, including
q  Stanzaic syllabics
q  ‘Nonce’ syllabics
q  Haiku
q  Tanka
q  Cinquain
q  Other
q  Open-Form Poet, i.e., I consider myself primarily a ‘free verse’ poem, creating my own fundamental forms but using such structures and devices as
q  Controlled but varying line length
q  Repeated syntactical structures, such as anaphors (repetition of an initial word or phrase over several lines)
q  Breath units as a primary means of determining line length
q  Non-metrical stresses as a primary means of line length

11.  I frequently and consciously use the following in my poetry:
q  Simple sense imagery, usually visual
q  More complex imagery that attempts to elicit several sensory responses simultaneously
q  Similes, primarily to convey sense impressions
q  Similes, primarily to convey more complex responses than simple sense impressions
q  Metaphors, in which the poem spells out the relationship between both the tenor (the abstract thing or idea I wish to talk about) and the vehicle (the concrete thing or idea to which I compare the abstraction)
q  Metaphors, in which the tenor is implicit or assumed, while the poem appears to focus exclusively on the vehicle
q  Symbols  within my poems
q  More complex symbols, in which the principle theme or ideas of the poem—considering individual poem as an integral whole—is communicated indirectly, through the mediation of the poems

12.  I frequently and consciously use the following sound devices in creating the music of my poetry:
q  Alliteration
q  Assonance
q  Consonance
q  Full Rhyme
q  Slant-, Skewed-, Half-Rhyme
q  Others

13.  In general, I am
q  Satisfied with the directions and expertise my poems demonstrate
q  Satisfied, but am eager to expand into new modes and explore new means of creating art
q  Frequently unsatisfied with the level of my poetry, especially in terms of
q  My use of language
q  My understanding of structure
q  The limits I impose—consciously or unconsciously—on my Imagination
q  The limits I impose—consciously or unconsciously—on my Ideas
q  My technical and mechanical Proficiency
q  Other
q  Deeply dissatisfied with the level of my poetry
q  About to give up on writing poetry at all

Monday, September 1, 2014

Brett Talley, THE REBORN

The Reborn
Brett Talley
JournalStone DoubleDown Series, Book IV
April 2014
Tradepaperback, $15.95

For almost as many reasons as there are individuals, abortion is one of the most controversial issues today.
Imagine a world, however, in which abortion was not only legal but government controlled.
Then go one step beyond government controlled to government mandated.
And these abortions are not performed cleanly, surgically (if such a thing were possible) but by brain-frying any fœtus found to be carrying a particular genetic marker in its DNA. The mother would not be hurt or damaged, but the life within would immediately cease to exist.
In this world, it has been discovered that some of the most heinous murderers, torturers, and serial killers are being reborn, their genetics impelling them toward a new life of horror in fifteen years or so. So wouldn’t it be logical to remove those carrying the potentially life-threatening genes (life-threatening to others, that is) before birth.
In this world, there is a special kind of soldier/police dedicated to locating and eliminating the dangerous DNA. They are a secret agency, known only to a few, and by those few referred to as “Shepherds”—after all, their job is to protect the larger flock, to control the dangers it might otherwise face.
And now imagine that in this world, the United States has recently suffered a devastating multiple-warhead nuclear attack that has destroyed the west coast and thrown the rest of the country—and the world in general—into turmoil and disarray.
Imagine all of that and you have the setting and premise behind Brett Talley’s The Reborn, a fascinating novel of possibilities and terrors, horrors and pessimism. Following his Bram Stoker Award® nominated work in That Which Should Not Be and The Void and his sterling efforts as a contributor to the first Limbus anthology and editor of Limbus 2, The Reborn is a master work of cross-generic balance, with elements of horror, science fiction, near-future dystopian, and post-apocalyptic storytelling.
What makes it even more powerful is his ability to tell his story on two distinctly different levels.
At the personal, specific level, it is the story of Marcus Ryder, unsung hero of the War that fragmented the world, now newly recruited into the Shepherds. He has faced blood and death—has caused more than his share of it—and lives with the memories every day. Now he must face the consequences of killing the unborn in order to avoid the future scourge of the Reborn. His new partner, Dominic Miles, is already seasoned, ready to show Marcus precisely what is required.
At the global, general level, it is the story of the War itself, of its beginnings in “an industrial backwater” in the middle of China and the emergence of a revolutionary leader who calls himself simply Khan. It is a tribute to Talley’s consummate storytelling ability that he can intercut chapters dealing with individuals and their challenges and growth with chapters outlining the strategic movements of nations and armies and never allow either to diminish in interest.
While all of this is happening (itself enough to challenge any author) Talley also provides readers incremental insights into the basic premise of the novel—that killing unborn babies and those that almost miraculously survive to be born—will save future generations from bloodshed and crime. With each chapter, each confrontation Marcus must survive, each advance by Khan and his fanatical armies, more information about the genetic strain and the databases used to combat it comes to light…with catastrophic consequences for Marcus, Dominic, Khan, and the entire world.
While The Reborn might lack the Lovecraftian touches readers of Talley’s other works have so enjoyed, it is nevertheless a more-than-solid work of speculative fiction, new in its approach to contemporary issues and captivating in its forays into a near-future world.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Kind Words from David Butler about CHAIN OF EVIL

David Butler, himself the author of multiple horror, sf, and steampunk novels as well as scholarly books on a number of subjects, has written the following about his experience reading Chain of Evil: JournalStone's Guide to Writing Darkness. He has given me permission to repost the comments here.

The book is scheduled for release through JournalStone on August please keep an eye out for it.

Bookshelf: Chain of Evil

ChainI sat down with a .pdf copy of this book, annotation functions turned on, intending to highlight the tidbits I imagined I’d glean from Dr. Collings. Collings is, after all, a master of the horror genre as novelist, as commentator, as poet, and of course as teacher. This is an unusual combination of excellences; I’m working on two short stories in the horror space right now, and I thought I’d winnow out an applicable tip or two.
So now–and I’d show you this, but it would be too much like giving away spoilers–my whole copy is highlighted in yellow. Okay, that’s hyperbole. Really, I’ve only highlighted about a quarter of the text. There were, in fact, one or two things I already knew.
Chain of Evil’s subtitle, Journalstone’s Guide to Writing Darkness, should be understood expansively and taken seriously. This book contains: essays focused on the mechanics of writing, including laser-focused advice on such specific subjects as semicolons, adverbs, and ellipses; meditations on staple motifs of speculative fiction (vampires, werewolves, apocalypses); reflections on reasons to write horror in the first place; analyses connecting horror to pre-modern metaphysics and tracing the changing role of, e.g., ghosts, as things have fallen apart and the center has not held; discussions of horror and Mormons (!); and actual poetry (!!).  And more.
It even, to my surprise and delight, quotes me.
From the perspective of the first step on the journey of reading Chain of Evil, not all of the essay’s titles seem equally promising as tools or lore about “writing darkness”; from the perspective of the end of the road, each essay strikes me as indispensable.  Dr. Collings wants to teach us to write literature that matters, because it grapples with the blackness behind the backs of our eyeballs and in the depths of our hearts, and to do that he sets forth a guide that is purposeful and oriented from the highest perspective, is detailed and tactical in its nuts and bolts specifics, and is replete with concrete examples.
Essential, topical, meaningful, and urgent. If you’re a writer or reader of horror fiction, get this book as soon as you can.

Poster from:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

When a SNAFU is Not Such a Bad Thing

SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horror
Edited by Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding
Cohesion Press, 2014

“Military horror.”
The phrase seems almost as tiredly redundant as the time-worn joke about “military intelligence” is oxymoronic. After all, by its nature, the military is expected to deal with horrific things. That is a given.
But when the already difficult and dangerous job of soldiering meets…well, other things, the term “military horror” takes on entirely new meanings.
SNAFU collects seventeen thrillers, tales in which otherwise deadly military operations ramp up even further with the addition of the outré, the mabacre, the unexpected, and whole ranges of things bloody and gruesome. To increase the interest, settings range from 48,000 BC to 50,000 AD; from nineteenth-century India to the twenty-first-century Pacific Northwest; from the coast of Japan during World War II to the scene of battle in the Civil War; from San Francisco in the 1960s to Berlin in the…well, you get the idea.
Let’s look briefly at a few of my favorite offerings (although by rights I should list every story in the book):

·         Neal F. Litherland, “Blackwater”: A highly trained unit is sent into the small coastal   village of Fisher’s Cove to rescue a kidnapped woman; when they see an ancient tome with the title The Esoteric Order of Dagon, it is a sign that their task is about to become infinitely more complicated;
·         Christine Morgan, “Little Johnny Jump-Up”: A gentle (if that is the right word) Civil War ghost tale about the eerie relationship between a small boy, accidentally killed in the field, and a 6-pound cannon, and how that relationship impacts each member of the patrol;
·         Brian W. Taylor, “Covert Genesis”: When a C-14 transport is shot down by something, the survivors don’t expect fellow survivors to suddenly undergo changes in eye color and have their skin begin to ripple as if there were something underneath—and even worse, there is;
·         Jonathan Maberry, “Bug Hunt: A Joe Ledger Adventure”: What happens when one extraction team runs afoul of another such team…from somewhere else; an action-adventure tale featuring an already familiar hero and told with Maberry’s customary precision and verve;
·         Weston Ochse, “Cold War Gothic”: On the eve of one of the 20th century’s greatest technological triumphs—the moon landing in 1969—Special Unit 77 combats aliens and supernatural forces in San Franisco…watch out especially for the Box Man (an extended experiment in ick) and the geisha vampires;
·         Curtis C. Chen, “Making Waves”: When a magician teleports aboard an allied submarine off the coast of Japan during World War II, her objective is simple and direct—to awaken the Kraken hidden in the depths and thereby keep the Japanese too busy with defense to mount an offensive; the task becomes more intricate, however, when she discovers that instead of one Kraken, the area harbors two Elder Things;
·         Greig Beck, “The Fossil”: A 100,000 year-long exploration of who—and what—are truly the aliens;
·         Eric S. Brown, “Holding the Line”: In a phrase, prepare for the Sasquatch Apocalypse;
·         Steve Ruthenbeck, “Ptearing All Before Us”: A small troop of infantry, assigned to being critical news to a commanding general during the 19th-century Indian Wars, abruptly encounter a nightmare from the native mythology, and one only is left alive to tell the tale;
·         Kirsten Cross, “A Time of Blood”: Two British soldiers discover what lies beneath the foundations of Stonehenge, and they don’t much like what they find;
·         James A. Moore, “Blank White Page”: Two strangers—one abnormally tall and gaunt, the other lean, continually smiling—ride into Silver Springs, Arizona, at the height of the silver rush; when their individual strangenesses mix with the boomtown atmosphere, the presence of a military detachment, and the arrival of revenge-seeking Apaches, things go south…a long way south, in a real hurry. This one is particularly intriguing for the tone, the dialogue between the two men that is constantly and purposively at odds with what happens around them.

Solid, every one of them.
If I have any objections to the stories, it would be that several just aren’t long enough. They read like chapters; they engage me with fascinating characters—both villains and heroes—follow exciting adventures, then concluded by intimating deeper problems, more dangerous situations…and I want to read more! Seems like a healthy objection to well-imagined tales.
Not one of the stories failed to attract and hold my interest. Not one of them failed to suggest new ways of looking at old monsters, and old ways of looking at new ones. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a collection whose authors  responded to the theme with such wholesale enthusiasm or one that so neatly defined and redefined its title: SNAFU.
Strongly recommended.