Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Matt Manocio, THE DARK SERVANT--After a Wobbly Beginning, a Powerful Comeback

The Dark Servant
Matt Manochio
Samhain Publications, 2014
Trade paperback, 290 pp., $16.00

Matt Manochio’s The Dark Servant surprised me.
To be sure, it looked intriguing from the onset, with a nicely evocative cover by Scott Carpenter and an challenging title—there would be a formidable creature involved, that was certain, and it would be subordinate, presumably, to something even more terrifying.
The opening scene is nicely set: a high-school senior on his way to school, having an innuendo-laced cell-phone conversation with his girlfriend, only vaguely aware of a bad smell in the rural New Jersey air. Then, out of nowhere, hideous shrieks and an unsettling growl. And then….
A dangling modifier.
I couldn’t help it. Even after nearly a decade of retirement, the English professor in me couldn’t help but be jarred out of a narrative by an awkwardly constructed sentence. The boy, Travis Reardon, grabs an emergency flashlight from the glove box and shines it into the surrounding forest: “Eyes darting back and forth, the beam danced from here to there…”—and suddenly the flashlight beam has eyes. From that point, the book would have to prove itself for me.
Unfortunately, the next few pages contained additional wobbles, including awkward word choice (an “indecipherable” sun), repetitiousness, and the following, describing the police chief’s discovery of anomalous hoof prints near the scene of a crime: “He let the hoof impressions ruminate before responding.” My first response was something along the lines of “I didn’t know hoof prints could ponder, let alone chew their cud.”
Mostly because I don’t like giving up on any book, however, I decided to continue.  

Imagine, if you will, one of the most fearsome creatures from European mythology, “older,” as one character puts it, “than Christ.” Imagine that it has come to a small New Jersey town and begun kidnapping, not children but high-school students on the cusp of adulthood, leaving no traces of its presence other than wrecked cars and damaged property. Imagine that it is eight feet tall, furred, horned, with terrifying claws, bearing a wooden crate on its back, into which it stuffs its victims. Imagine that its actions seem at best either sociopathic or psychotic—or perhaps both, since it cares nothing for human values and rules and revels in inflicting pain.
Oh, and that it speaks English fluently, although with a slight but detectable German accent (which is deftly handled throughout).
And that it begins its depredations on December 5th.
And that it is kidnapping its victims on the orders of its Master…who, we discover, is none other than “…Nicholas of Myra! Saint Nicholas! Santa Claus!”
To reveal that connection is not a spoiler, because in important ways—and most surprisingly effective ways—the novel is not about the monster, the Krampus, that serves as Saint Nicholas’s “dark servant” in punishing evil and wicked children, although that seems, on the surface at least, the driving point of the narrative. No, what The Dark Servant concentrates on is the children themselves, adolescents at turning points in their young lives, making false choices and inadvertently setting themselves onto destructive paths. Sometimes the false choices are direct—physically bullying smaller, helpless children. Other times they are more damaging and potentially more lasting—for example, incessant cyber-bullying that can drive the victims to take appalling actions. And sometimes…but, no, that would be providing a spoiler.
Manochio tackles his tale with energy and verve (perhaps accounting for the occasional over-writing), blending brutal horror with moments of appropriate comedy, as when the rather myopic Krampus discovers that it has seriously misread the “Naughty List.” Manochio takes what might in other hands have been a silly novel—really, Santa Claus!—and transforms it into a credible, highly modernized morality tale of guilt and punishment, of  justice and retribution, of intent and responsibility. He seeds the narrative with carefully paced bits of information that make the revelation of the creature’s identity inevitable but not intrusive, keying crucial bits of the story-telling to, of all things, school assignments, and by doing so making fantastic elements The Dark Servant  more plausible. He incorporates recent technology into a mythic story in such a way as to make the conclusion satisfying. And he does so while maintaining interest in and focus on a handful of young people who are simultaneously unique and universal. By the end, the infelicities of writing are largely forgotten (except, obviously, by obsessive-compulsive English teachers, retired or not) and what remains is the resonant, final thematic statement: “You cannot kill evil—only its host.”
 I’m glad that The Dark Servant surprised me. I’m glad that I continued reading. It was well worth it.  

Monday, March 30, 2015

Eric Red, IT WAITS BELOW--Sea-faring Horror

It Waits Below
Eric Red
Samhain Publishing, 2014
Trade paperback, 270 pp., $16.00

Over a century and a half ago, according to the narrative that forms Eric Red’s It Waits Below, an unprecedented cosmic event occurred, a collision between the Corona, a Spanish warship laden with a golden treasure intended for the Emperor of Japan, and an interstellar wanderer, a comet forging a million-eons-long pathway through the stars until, in a one-in-a-billion chance it strikes and destroys the ship. And sends the treasure into the depths of the Mariana Trench, 30,000 feet down.
Now, in present day, the Enright brothers’ salvage operation is determined to retrieve the gold. With a specially equipped support tender and a radically re-designed submersible, they intend to descend deeper than humans have ever gone and, in an equally radically designed suit, walk on the bottom of the Trench into the ruins of the Corona.
Everything is set. Every contingency has been accounted for. Nothing can go wrong.
Except, of course, everything does.
Through accident and oversight, the submersible falls into an uncharted crevasse, well below crush-depth for both the DSV and the suit. On the surface, a violent storm rages and, far worse, pirates attack on the theory that the Enrights have already retrieved the treasure; all they will have to do is take it from them. Enough elements of hazard for any action-adventure tale.
But It Waits Below has one additional complication for its characters. Something is alive within the comet, something that has lived for millions of years in the frigid vacuum of space, and now, with the comet lodged inside the sunken wreck of the Corona, it discovers the possibility of new, warm hosts to infest, to control…and to change.

Although the story is a bit slow in the beginning, as the various actors are introduced and the circumstances detailed, once Red sets things in motion, It Waits Below transforms into a non-stop thriller, with none of the characters given a moment’s peace, a moment’s rest from the various forces that have gathered. It gains steam as the creature metamorphoses, consuming more and more of the life-forms around it, until it finally emerges to battle against the steel-plated tender itself. The final, apocalyptic scenes are described with all of the special effects of the best visual creature-features; and, in keeping with its genre, readers are challenged to guess who—if anyone—will survive.
A relatively short novel (270 pages), it is a fast-paced read. Characters are clearly limned, their motivations believable throughout. The settings—both above and below sea level—contribute to the texture, in particular the absolute blackness of the depths and the characters’ horror at being trapped there, helpless and unable to contact the outside world. The creature is grisly and horrific in all of its manifestations, some of which are shiveringly grotesque.
If there is anything about the novel that detracts from its effectiveness, it is the presence throughout of language problems—repetition of words, images, even clichés; long, awkwardly constructed sentences that require readers to stop and repeat to figure out how the pieces fit together; words misused or skewed that throw passages off balance; and abrupt shifts in diction from scientific-seeming to slang. The underlying story is sound; it would be well-served by a final, meticulous editorial sweep.
 On the whole, however, there is much to appreciate, many tremors of horror to anticipate and endure, and the constant threat of destruction—of the divers, of the crew above, and indeed of humanity itself.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Morgan Deane, BLEACHED BONES AND WICKED SERPENTS--Not Proof, but Convincing Support

Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon
Morgan Deane, 2014

The Book of Mormon is not a manual on warfare. Even so, its final compilers and redactors chose to incorporate a number of war-related elements into the narrative, including not only the seemingly incessant civil wars in Ether but also the more carefully structured, more detailed chronicles in the aptly named “War Chapters,” Alma 43-63.
For many readers, these passages represent stumbling blocks to be endured in order to get to the more spiritual portions of the Book or Mormon; but for others, they provide opportunities to examine some of the few particulars given of life among the Lamanite and Nephites—glimpses, as it were, into the nuts-and-bolts events that support the Book’s primary purpose: to act as a witness to the mission and divinity of Christ.
It seems ironic that warfare should offer insights into the worldview of an ancient people when the larger goal of their histories is to establish peace, but scholars such as Morgan Deane argue that precisely  because the annals of warfare are so detailed they are an invaluable support for the Book of Mormon as a whole. Including among his guides the work of Hugh Nibley in books such as Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, which set out to establish the validity of certain cultural and geographical claims in the Book of Mormon, Deane performs a similar analysis of one element of the book, warfare, and demonstrates that the details presented, often as afterthoughts or asides to a verse, support the Book of Mormon’s claim to be an ancient document. He does not assert proof that the spiritual message is true—that comes only through the Spirit; but he does suggest that to take the book seriously as an ancient document requires that one compare it with what is known of similar ancient societies and that to do so enlarges both understanding and acceptance of the underlying implications. As he states: “The often repeated spiritual message of The Book of Mormon, that obedience brings prosperity and disobedience destruction is fulfilled through warfare.”     
In seven chapters Deane tackles key issues, beginning with the often inexplicable obsession with warfare in the relatively brief book of Ether. To do so, he draws parallels with a similar drawn-out and destructive series of civil wars in ancient China, the War of the Eight Princes. While not arguing that one directly influenced the other, he does contend that complex similarities between the two histories suggest that both accurately reflect their times. The comparisons include

a similar moral lesson from their respective contemporary historians; a breakdown of trade interpreted as a curse or loss of divine favor; a multitude of related claimants to throne; regional power bases, with control of the capital often serving as an apple of discord; armies formed by personal oaths of loyalty, political ruses, and a constant appeal to divine favor to justify war; similar military practices and reliance on pre-battle ruses; and the sanguine [i.e., bloody]results of the conflict in terms of duration, intensity, and casualties.

Minor differences in structure and interpretation of the two wars arise primarily from the historians’ differing purposes, especially the moralizing and spiritualizing lessons to be drawn from Ether’s account.
In another chapter, he anatomizes what is known of the various incursions of the “Gadianton Robbers” into the Nephite narrative, noting that the language used to describe them and their actions—especially the consistently pejorative “robbers”—dovetails neatly with strategies used by other societies, including ancient China, Persia, and Rome, to marginalize and make other, to “isolate and confuse enemies” that threaten the centers of power. Deane connects the bands with ancient and modern examples of insurgency, ultimately tying the Book of Mormon account into modern concerns for and experiences with political terrorism in ways that are insightful and enlightening.
Subsequent chapters examine the details of recruiting armies, the rituals incorporated to make warfare palatable to soldiers and civilian populations, the tactics and logistics of warfare itself—from brutal “shock battle,” in which opposing armies simply charge each other, hacking and slashing as they go, to more sophisticated (and perhaps more questionable) strategies of ruses, ambushes, deceit, and assassination. He looks closely at the military career of Captain Moroni, assessing modern attempts to paint him as excessively violent, in essence a “war criminal” whose spiritual lessons should be ignored; Deane argues instead that in terms of ancient practices, modern necessities, and classical studies of the art of war, Moroni stands apart as a military genius.
In the final chapters, Deane approaches what seems the core of the study: The Book of Mormon as a defender of offensive warfare and the dangers of passive defense when the existence of a culture or society is at stake. “This chapter,” he says at the beginning of chapter 7, “doesn’t just examine the ancient imperatives from geography and strategic threats that fueled the Nephite decisions and results. It identifies the principles that governed their decisions and updates them for a modern age,”…the age of George Bush and Iraq, of ISIS and Iran. He definitely has an agenda as he brings Bleached Bones and Wicker Serpents to a Conclusion, one with which readers may agree or disagree, but he sets out his arguments clearly and, for me at least, persuasively.

Throughout the study, Deane consistently points out elements of The Book of Mormon that agree with what is known about other ancient cultures, both from contemporary accounts and from modern studies. In doing so, he does not claim to have proven that The Book of Mormon is true; instead, he argues that there is substantial evidence that it is what it declares itself to be: an ancient document that chronicles the warfare—and the shifting levels of spirituality and morality—of an ancient people.

Monday, March 16, 2015

J. Scott Bronson, THE AGITATED HEART--Belief Beyond Words

The Agitated Heart
J. Scott Bronson
Forthcoming from ArcPoint Media 

J. Scott Bronson’s The Agitated Heart is a sometimes comforting, sometimes heartbreaking story of that most atypical of entities, a typical family…in this case, typical LDS family.
Marcus Arnold is an often controversial Elders Quorum instructor; Susan Arnold, the Primary President; Christopher Arnold, an inquisitive and sensitive eleven-year-old struggling with how to avoid a school bully; and Kari Arnold, a going-on-eight-year-old nearing her baptism. From the outside, they seem typical enough—Bronson’s opening pages show them interacting with each other and members of their ward during a Sunday service that would, to most LDS readers, seem fairly representative in its broader outlines: teachers trying to find innovative ways to communicate complex ideas to often unruly boys; other teachers shocking students out of complacency in order to generate new ideas; children vying for teachers’ favor in classes; parents (particularly mothers) protective and over-protective of their offspring.
That almost archetypal vision of a family continues as the Arnolds walk home after Church. Christopher and Kari leave first, and readers begin to intuit their closeness, the deep love for each other, excepting for moments of typical sibling rivalry. She wants him to comfort her in her concerns over baptism; he doesn’t quite know how to take her questions. Marcus and Susan walk hand-in-hand, both content in their thirteen-year marriage…bantering and teasing, easy with each other, almost making the reader wonder if this family is interesting enough to warrant a novel.
But it is. Bronson sees deeply enough to understand that beneath the typical—indeed what makes the “typical”—are the tiny peculiarities that constitute the individual…and The Agitated Heart is about nothing if not about the individual. Yet from the beginning, Bronson immerses readers in ambiguity about the point of his story: the title is perfectly and intentionally ambivalent. Whose heart is agitated? Father’s? yes, definitely. Mother’s? equally so. The chldren’s—together and separately? yes.
And in what way agitated, particularly as the novel begins with, indeed devotes the entire Prologue to its lexical opposite: “Christopher Jacob Arnold sought peace for many days”? At first, it seems as if the sentence relates to the bullying Christopher endures at school; later, perhaps, it might seem to relate to his place in a family that loves each other but does not quite understand each other and whose insecurities and failures frequently spill over into jarring scenes of discord; and at the end…well to say anything more about the conclusion of the novel would be to defeat its considerable power. Enough to note that it has much to do with both of the above, and even more so with that transcendent “peace which passeth beyond understanding” that lies at the center of the novel.
As Bronson explores the multiplicity of agitated hearts and their quests for peace, he introduces several key themes that form and shape his story.
The first is language. The opening scene suggests the insufficiency of words to communicate our deepest needs and desires. Brother Penrod, a former bishop, is teaching the eleven-year-olds about Gethsemane. He calls upon one boy, notoriously bad at reading, who stumbles over the words as he reads the scriptural account. Words fail; if anything, the way the boy flounders calls forth derision from several students rather than understand. But Bishop Penrod is prepared—as the boy reads, he draws a chalk-Christ lying on the blackboard, hands clasped in front of him. When Bishop Penrod asks “What is Jesus about to do,” Christopher alone gives the correct answer: “Bleed.”
As the teacher asks further questions, he adds highlights to the chalk drawing…in red. The blood of Christ. Shed for the sins of all. Covering him. Surrounding him. And for the first time, Christopher begins to realize what the words—words he has heard so often before—actually mean.
From then on, words form the center of nearly ever interaction. Marcus manages to make a nonsense word as powerfully oppressive as the swear words he is supposed to be teaching against. In her frustration and need to create order in the Primary, Susan uses words that wound others far beyond anything she could have imagined; later, at home, Marcus and Susan maintain a vicious barrage of innocent-seeming words that cut each other more and more painfully, until both begin to wonder about the foundations of their marriage. Christopher searches for the words that might keep him from getting beaten-up from school; and, for a time at least, discovers one in something as simple as a name. Kari, who stutters badly, cannot find words to articulate her fears about baptism, which increase as the day draws nearer. Throughout, in spite of better (or occasionally worse) intentions, speakers complicate situations, make them more intense, make them more threatening, by the words they use.
Paralleling the emphasis on language and its inefficiency is a focus on belief. This is perhaps requisite in a story about religious people, in a religious environment, discussing religious topics. But Bronson provides more than lip service to stereotypes and clichés. His character struggle toward belief—and understanding and acceptance—on every level, constantly stymied by the inadequacy of language even to frame their struggles. When it comes…and it does…belief follows pain and fear and effort, and begins the transformation of each character.
But ultimately, I think, The Agitated Heart essentially explores the single moment at the core of Bishop Penrod’s Sunday School lesson; the implicit imagery that extends from Christopher’s small cut on the forehead to the horrific events of the final pages; the tenor that underlies nearly every passage, every exchange in the novel, from the complexities of forgiveness to the impossible burdens of grief and guilt. It is, at heart, about the inarticulable, inexplicable, and ultimately miraculous Atonement of Jesus Christ.    
This makes The Agitated Heart a difficult book. There is pain and suffering. There is sinfulness, intentional and unintentional. There are words that hurt instead of heal. And there is blood. So much blood.
And at the end, Bronson does not make the mistake of creating a fairy-tale ending in which everything is magically resolved. That cannot happen in this life. But through their own experiences—and most specifically through Christopher’s (Christopher = ‘Christ-bearer’)—the Arnolds each manage the first steps. They surpass the limitations of language to approach truth; they move beyond passive statements of belief to actions that are built upon belief; and—just as did the Valiant Elevens in Bishop Penrod’s class—they apprehend the suffering and the sacrifice of Christ on new levels, and are forever changed by it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Langille annd Weston, eds., OLD SCRATCH AND OWL HOOTS--Bringing the Old West to Life...and to Death

Old Scratch and Owl Hoots: A Collection of Utah Horror.
C.R. Langille and R.L. Weston, eds.
Griffin Publishers, 2014

The subtitle to Old Scratch and Owl Hoots, a thoroughly enjoyable anthology edited by C.R. Langille and R.L. Weston, points directly to one of the more curious facts about modern American science fiction, fantasy, and horror: an unusually high number of well-received authors hail from one relatively small area in the Intermountain West. When considering horror in particular, readers do not generally think immediately of Utah—land of wide-open deserts and snow-capped mountains, of past Olympics and future vacations, of Temples and Tabernacles. Yet the fourteen tales in this Collection of Utah Horror aptly suggest the talents, the diversity, and the power to be found there.
The “Foreword” by Tim Waggoner sets the stage for the stories by noting the appropriateness of the mythic Old West (and, implicitly, of the mythic New West) as a setting for horror: the necessary sense of isolation, physically, emotionally, and spiritually; and the frequency of legends, often associated with monsters of varying forms, that epitomize the darkness of unknown landscapes. With his final words—“Let’s ride”—he releases readers into adventures that range from the eerie to the spine-tingling, from the nightmarish to the curiously nostalgic.

Nicholas Batura’s “Washakie’s Revenge” begins in Ogden, Utah, in 1894. A few years after that, around 1900, my five-year-old grandmother made a trip to Ogden that included five days of arduous travel to go perhaps 150 miles; a wagon full of supplies; and—what surprised me most when she first told me the story—her sleeping under the wagon bed, along with her family, for protection against marauding bands of robbers. So when Batura begins by evoking a mostly-lawless Ogden, with the requisite saloon, poker game, and shoot-out, I felt at once comfortable. I had heard stories about this time and this place from an impeachable source. But as Batura’s character is taken under arrest to Salt Lake—not the City, but a small island in the lake—things take a decidedly different and uncomfortable turn, for him and for the reader. Because what he finds is more than merely another manifestation of man’s inhumanity to man. Much more.
With “Community Business,” Justin Bailey explore the definitions and limits of “communities”—what price it might take for an individual to try to separate from others and how little of value might be gained…especially when the dead seem less than content to remain dead.
Lehua Parker presents a deftly stylized riff on a classic fairy-tale in “Red.” Initially a story of a young girl kidnapped and in immediate danger of the proverbial “fate worse than death,” it skillfully reveals more and more of the situation, until it is clear that there is a girl in a red cloak, a grandmother, and a wolf. The only snag is that they do not quite correspond to what the fairy-tale leads us to expect.
“The Demon We Bring,” by C.R. Langille set in Utah in 1866, is in one sense an old-time Western and in another sense a timeless tale of love and loss, of grief and revenge, of choice and consequence.
Michael C. Darling uses “The Hollow” to create the ultimate haunted house and a hunger so desperate that it transcends time and space. The builder and his victim both discover, far too late, that “There Is No Way Out.”
Viktor Demors’ “Cold Hearted” takes place in a rough hunters’ cabin in the middle of a blizzard. Bitter, heart-felt cold can do strange things to men, as Simeon and Peter discover. When all hope but one is gone, that single choice may lead to survival…or to damnation. As with Batura’s story, this one also struck a chord. My family histories record an equally harsh winter, during which one of my forebears left wife and child to venture out to hunt. While he was gone they were reduced to existing on a broth made by boiling their horses’ harnesses; fortunately for my family, the father returned in time to save them. Demors’ characters are nowhere near that lucky.
In “Dreadful Sorry,” R.L. Weston anatomizes the indignities and inhumanities committed by railroad workers upon a camp of Chinese coolies. History merges with ghost story and—just when it seems as if cosmic justice might be served…well, these are, after all, tales of horror.
Jaren K. Rencher begins “Hunger” with Eddie Hawkins stealing through the pines, desperate to stay ahead of “Old Brigham’s Avenging Angels,” hot on his trail for a string of robberies and mmurders—or perhaps it is the Danites or, worst of all, Orren Porter Rockwell himself that he fears most. Sleepless from fear—and the haunting sense that something is nearby—he takes refuge in a lonely ranch house, where he is treated as the guest of honor at a feast. Only gradually does he realize that there is a price to be paid for the generosity.
“The Man Who Comes for You,” by Amanda Luzzader, is nicely ambiguous in its title—what does for really mean? To collect, to gather? Or to aid and support? Or both. When young Charlie McPheeny meets Jake the gunslinger and recommends his mother’s boarding house as a good place to stay, he sets in motion events that will cost lives…and save them.
K. Scott Forman’s “The Stranger Within” shows a boy struggling to understand what has happened to the father he once knew, to the man who left them to fight the Civil War and who never returned…except in body. Having relocated to a farm outside a Mormon community, Jack must stand by and helplessly watch his family self-destruct.
“Life to Life,” by C.H. Lindsay breathes new life, as it were, in to an old scenario. Young, beautiful widow mourning by her husband’s body. Virile sheriff passing by, entranced by her voice, the sense of mystery surrounding her. An offer of “…comfort.” But this time, the moment does not end as he expects.
Johnny Worthen tackles the knotty problem of polygamy in “Keep Sweet,” with a nightmarish tale of a polygamy that never was, in which men’s lust and vanity wreak pain, horror, and devastation upon their chosen innocents…until Vengeance meets the demands of Justice.
The penultimate story, Mimi A. Williams’ “The Lamb on the Tombstone,” seems at first anachronistic, talking as it does of radios and CDs and AC. A young couple, traveling south from Salt Lake City toward Zion National Park, take a side trip to a pioneer cemetery near Springdale, where the narrator becomes intrigued by a time-worn stone surmounted by a carved lamb, its only inscription being two dates in May, 1865. Driving further south, David shares a bit of family history, including the fact that a relative was buried in the old graveyard…and that the family member had been cursed. Camping near the Virgin River, Amanda hears a baby’s distant cry…and it draws closer and closer.
With “Earthbound,” by Rachel Lewis, the collection comes to a triumphant close, with a first-person, present-tense narrative of a musician—Mssr. Duval—and his secretary, who penetrate the wilderness searching for music in a place “where the melody should never be discovered.” As Duval moves further into the unforgiving desert, plagued by hunger and thirst and his private obsession, the narrator—the Land itself—watches as ghosts are drawn from the soil by his music. It is a fitting conclusion…lyrical, symbolic, evocative, and entirely appropriate to the landscape that has given birth to the tales.

My family has deep roots in the Utah wilderness of the long-ago that extend to today. Reading Old Scratch and Owl Hoots, concentrating as it does on horror, on darkness, on death and distress and despair, I nonetheless felt the authenticity of many of the stories. In many ways, they bring together images, ideas, characters, and conflicts that are unique to that particular landscape…and that at the same time speak to universals of human experience.

Well done—strongly recommended.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Marjorie Sandor, ed., THE UNCANNY READER--Already a Classic

The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows
Marjorie Sandor, ed.
St. Martin’s Griffin, February 2015
Trade paperback, $19.99, 563 pp.

Over the past several years, I have enjoyed the opportunity of reviewing a number of anthologies relating to dark fantasy, to speculative fiction, to horror. Many of them have been outstanding, collecting stories that stand as high points in their specific sub-genres, moments of high artistry by their authors.
Of these many, however, two stand out as particular milestones.
The first is Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1944), edited by Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser (for my review, please see: This book is important to me for two reasons. First, it was my initial introduction to the breadth and depth of dark fiction, stimulating my imagination in ways that would have been inconceivable had I not read it. I can still remember individual moments when certain stories “came together”—when language, images, and ideas fused so perfectly that I experienced the physiological frisson that is the hallmark of the finest horror. And, as noted in the review, I still have my copy of that book on my shelf where I can easily find it. The second reason is that it is, quite simply, one of the finest compilations of historical horror available; in 1944, to be sure, it was considered cutting-edge but by 1967, when I purchased my copy, it was already the sine qua non for neophyte readers. Anyone interested in tracing how horror came to where it is today would do well to begin with Great Tales.
The second remarkable anthology is A Darke Phantastique: Encounters with the Uncanny and Other Magical Things (2014), edited by Jason V. Brock (please see: In key ways, it seems the Great Tales of the twenty-first century, collecting contemporary stories that mark definitive shifts in society; in ethics and morality; in language and expression; in attitudes among individuals, tribes, and peoples—all clothed in the cloak of indeterminacy and exploration. It seems in its own way as much on the track toward classic-status as the Wise and Fraser collection.
And now, there is a third, one that encompasses the dimensions of both, displaying not only more fine fictions but a clear sense of how they came about, their ancestry, and their world-wide interest.
The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, edited by Marjorie Sandor, collects thirty-one tales from nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century writers, beginning with E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sand-man” (1817) and concluding with Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia” (2006). Along the way, it pays due homage to the greats: Poe, Bierce, Chekhov, Kafka, Lovecraft, Jackson, Oates—names without which the collection could not pretend to completeness. At the same time, however, it introduces readers to less-familiar stories by men and women; stories originating in English and stories translated from a number of other languages; stories from the US and the UK and more traditional European nations and stories from Egypt, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Uruguay, and Zambia. At over 550 pages, the collection represents the finest of nearly two centuries of investigating “Shadows.”
For such a massive book, the cover price seems more than fair; even more so since Sandor’s “Unraveling: An Introduction” is well worth the cover price alone for its exquisite care in defining—delimiting and mapping—the extent of the “uncanny.” Quite properly, she begins by examining her term: Uncanny, ‘seemingly supernatural’ or ‘mysterious.’ Immediately she pauses on one word…seemingly, identifying it as the key to the entire collection.
Seemingly. Inherent uncertainty of outcome. Stories that, set in realistic landscapes with realistic characters, nonetheless end in hesitation, ambiguity, indecision. And in spite of that—or better, perhaps—because of that, they satisfy more completely than self-contained, self-explanatory stories might not. If on the one hand, a clear resolution would indicate the supernatural, and on the other the natural or realistic, in between lies the possibility of both…or neither.
These are, in effect, Schrödinger’s Box stories…only no one actually lifts the lid at the end to discover either the corpse or the living cat.
These are, as Sandor tells us, stories about potentialities:

When something that should have remained hidden has come out into the open
When we feel as if something primitive has occurred in a modern and secular context
When we feel uncertainty as to whether we have encountered a human or an automaton
When the inanimate appears animate. Or when something animate appears inanimate
When something familiar happens in an unfamiliar context
Conversely, when something strange happens in a familiar context….

And on…and on.
Although tempted to talk about favorites (and there are many), I decided not to in this case. Merely presenting the skeleton of a story is often enough to diffuse the eeriness within, and at other times would require my bringing my version of resolution to a story that intentionally does not have one. Suffice it to say, each story is one-of-a-kind tale-telling that may seem to lead in a specific direction but that might…just might…carry the reader into uncomfortable, disquieting, occasionally frightening, always intriguing directions.

Open the book and give it a try.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Jonathan Ryan, 3 GATES OF THE DEAD—Giving Each Its Due

3 Gates of the Dead
Jonathan Ryan
Premier Digital Publishing, 2013
Trade paperback, 311 pp.

Jonathan Ryan’s 3 Gates of the Dead, the first book in his 3 Gates Series, does not read like a novel…or, rather, it reads like the best kind of novel. There is much about the book that should militate against it, particularly as a horror novel intended for a  general market; the most important point, perhaps, is that it focuses on religion and religious issues—overtly, in characters, events, and content; and covertly, as it were, in theme and subtext. Yet, for equally specific reasons, it does succeed and succeeds admirably.
Much of that success occurs because—to repeat myself—it reads like the best kind of novel, surmounting many of the limitations implicit in horror and religious fiction. For me, it does so through its essential authenticity: authentic characters, both religious and non-religious, speak to each other and to readers using authentic language, diction, and tone, to explore what turn into authentic-seeming encounters with the supernatural. Ryan’s skill is such that for long passages, I forgot I was reading as a reviewer; forgot that, as always, I was reading as an unofficial and impartial pseudo-editor; forgot everything except what was happening to Pastor Aiden Schaeffer, Detective Jenifer Brown, Father Neal and his band of unofficial ghost hunters, and the rest of the cast involved in investigating the bloody and mysterious death of Aiden’s fiancé. With each complication and each successive murder, 3 Gates drew me further in and further into a world in which science and religion have much to teach each other.
Appropriately enough, the book begins with Aiden’s acceptance of a terrible truth: “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore”—a heart-wrenching and life-changing statement for the assistant pastor at a rigidly Presbyterian church. Coupled with Aiden’s loss of his parents a year before and a subsequent break-up with his fiancé, this additional burden threatens to be too much for him…until he becomes involved with discovering who murdered his fiancé and why.
It is not coincidental that much in the opening pages deals with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and how reading it helped bring Aiden to a state of disbelief; this sets the stage for the gradual alterations in his understanding of himself, of his ties with religion, of the nature of belief and faith, and of the nature of the universe itself. Eventually, the precepts of science are brought to bear in testing religion; as Father Neal explains midway through the book, “Think about the scientific method. You have a theory, and then you test it to see if it’s true. If the test holds up, you stay with that theory until something comes that changes that.” For Aiden, for whom the visible world has been all that he could accept, clear evidence of an invisible world and its intrusions into his until-then comfortable view of reality require that he re-think everything that he thought he knew.
There is more that I could explore about 3 Gates of the Dead, including the deft way in which Ryan acknowledges and exploits (in the best way) his debt to two previous writers of religious supernatural fiction: C.S. Lewis (for my comments on this influence, please see my earlier review of Dark Bride at, who contributes important elements of setting and tone at precisely the right moments; and Charles Williams, one of the Inklings and thus a friend of Lewis’, who is referred to in the story, again at the most appropriate moments. However, I think what is more important to say is simply this: 3 Gates of the Dead is a near-flawless examination in fiction of true-to-life conflicts, contradictions, and ultimate reconciliations between two modes of knowing, between the objective and the subjective, between the visible and the invisible, and between doubt and faith. And, it provides a perfect springboard—as it was designed to do—into the remainder of the complex story of Pastor Aiden Schaeffer.
Highly recommended.

Monday, March 2, 2015

"On the Morning of Christ's Nativity"

In December of 1629, the twenty-one-year-old John Milton com­posed one of his first great works, his Nativity Ode. Using the trope of writing the poem at the first light of day on Christmas morning, in fact looking out his window to witness the arrival of the three orient Kings, he presents himself as hastening to compose a “humble ode” to lay at the feet of the Christ Child. What follows is an entirely non-traditional Christmas poem, one that ranges from the infant Christ asleep in the manger to the image of the pagan gods trooping in defeat into Hell at the mere coming of the Child. In twenty-seven meticulously structured and rhymed stanzas, the youthful poet (whose adult works would include what is arguably the greatest sin­gle poem in the English language, Paradise Lost) explores the global and cosmic ramifications of the Incarnation in tones that move mag­nificently and seamlessly from the intensely personal to the unlimited universal. For any poet, the poem would be a masterpiece; for a poet of twenty-one, who had yet to publish a single poem, it is nothing less than miraculous.
The following piece, strictly modeled on Milton’s stanzaic form and rhyming pattern, and borrowing (in a perfectly acceptable seven­teenth-century manner) his title, represents my own attempt at ex­pressing the roles and functions of the Infant Christ--incorporating such LDS beliefs as that Christ was born in the spring. It represents at once a statement of my deep appreciation of Milton and his works, gleaned from over forty years of engagement with them on various levels, and—more crucially—a personal vision of Christ as both God and Man. It would be ingenuous to argue that it should not be com­pared with Milton’s achievement; but at the least I hope it does not fare too poorly in the comparison.

The Ode

It’s dark and drear today,
The sky a numbing gray,
      With cloud-banks bowing near to brush the ground;
The wan white snow is gone,
Absorbed into the lawn
      That stretches in brown desolation ’round,
While in the barren garden beds
The first brave tulips break, to raise their gladsome heads.

And in my heart I yearn
For Spring’s rainbowed return,                                  
      And wish that I were now in Other-When;
That darkness veiled the land
And in a starry Band
      Bright Angel courses, far as eye could ken,
Proclaim in verses pure, and call
The advent of Good Will and Peace on Earth to All.

If I were Other-Where
And heard that holy Air
      Resounding over shepherds’ eager ears,
Then might I join the throng
And know that I belong
      With hosts of worshippers who shed all fears,
Might joyfully meld my song with them                       
And journey through dark vales to distant Bethlehem;

Where Mary enfolds her Son,
Her strenuous labors done,
      Near Joseph, steward of the mortal Maker
Chosen from before
Wild oceans voiced their roar
      Or whispered in a world-wide, blue-froth breaker;
Or eagles soared through tumbled skies,
Or spirit shone through lion’s, tiger’s, lynx’s eyes.

Elected ere each world                                  
In cosmic order whirled
      About a thousand thousand thousand stars;
A simple child, to grow
And know both joy and woe
That mark His trail of days like shadow bars;
Though Son withal of Father-God,
Content to bear His pall of needful flesh-façade.

In that Other-Where
A rough-hewn manger, bare
      Of all but fragrant golden straw,
Would serve as cynosure
Within the night obscure,
      And silent eyes—now moist with tearstains—draw
From Heaven to long-expectant Earth
As simple shepherds greet an Infant’s Holy Birth.

The Child with eyes tight-closed,
His fragileness exposed
      To all the vagaries of mortal life,
Sleeps peacefully and dreams
Perhaps—or so it seems—
      Of Heaven’s rest exchanged for earth-bound strife,
Of praises formed on every tongue,
And crystal anthems by hosts of Angels freely sung.   

Or should we still extend
Beginnings without End
      And see Him in divinest Councils speaking;
Where two exalting Plans
Are offered forth, for Man’s
      Eternal Destiny and Fate both seeking;
Intelligences without start,      
As Spirits clothed, hear that each must soon depart;

And whether yet impelled,
By One’s strong will compelled
      To troop in irons back to Heaven’s cell;
Or if by faith return
And endless honors earn,
      Or fail, and through their choices merit Hell—
The lot is theirs—no vote sustained;
Each heart is free, and thus, strict agency maintained.
Some seek the safest way,
That in stolen freedom lay,
      Where One will force each Spirit’s right decision,
And joined in gleeful mirth
At those whose trial on Earth
      Might end with them soul-bound by Sin’s derision,
While they who chose in fear this plan
Were guaranteed safe-conduct back to God, as man.

But more were stirred by Him
Whose Plan at first seemed grim,
      Since it retained the chance that some might fail;
But those whose true Will spoke
Would break Perdition’s yoke,
      And after trials endured in bodies frail
Might through the Son’s unending Light
Thus prove themselves full worth Celestial Worlds bright;

And sing forevermore
Creation’s mighty score
      From worlds unnumbered through perpetual Space,
And hymn with one accord
The Glories of their Lord,
      Whose life and death rang greatness for their race;         
While every note to Him thus sung
Trebles but the praise of God from every tongue.

But would that be too much
Encumbrance laid on such
      A sweet and tender Babe as this here sleeping?
Would the jading weight
Of untold worlds’ fate
      Disturb his pleasant rest with weary weeping?
Is this too great a burden still
For One so tiny, weak, and helpless to fulfill?

If aye, then we must turn
To future years to learn
      How His Plan’s fruition might unfold;
But oh! that leads to fears
And terrifying tears
      Upon a high and lonely Mountain cold,
Where He alone must suffer woe,
And He, of all God’s Sons, alone to Death must go;

And so conclude His Word                                                   
By countless Spirits heard
      That He thus takes upon Him Mankind’s sins,
And by that selfless Act
Completes the Eternal Pact,
      And Heaven’s approbation fully wins;
While millions taste their pented breath—
In awe, regard on High the instant of His Death.

To tarry at that sight,
Or marvel at His plight,
      Would prove too much for mortal heart to bear;
To look beyond were wise,
A respite for frail eyes
      And solace to all hearts worn thin with care;
For through His death he works a change
And fashions thus a vessel for our souls’ exchange.

For after three dark days
He our full forfeit pays,
      With broken heart and blood for Mankind shed;
And with the morning dew
      And walks this Earth with simple footsteps’ tread;        
’Mid lilies white and diamond pure
He works for us forever deadly Sin’s last cure.

But now the Infant sleeps,
While Mary softly weeps
      In joy and sorrow for the coming years;
And falters, filled with awe!
At Mercy wedding Law
      And treasures up great promise mixed with fears;
And in His face, composed and fine,
She sees the coming Judgment of great Adam’s line.

For the bright Son dawns with Power,
Whose Might and Grandeur flower
      With full achievement of His chosen Task,
And mounts above wide throngs
Repentant of their wrongs,
      Content in His great Presence now to bask;
While he with Wisdom’s somber grace
Consigns each spirit to its well-appointed Place;

Until each Heavenly Sphere
Bides, eager to draw near
      The seat of Radiance and ethereal Throne;
Across the cosmic waste
Each planet waits in place
      To feel the sear of flame that each must own
Before they wheel through reverend skies
And humbly bow before their loving Sovereign’s eyes.

And He will judge each kind,
Each Making of His Mind
      On counted Worlds that whirl without End;
From them accept His Crown
Of Honor and Renown,
      And every knee in every Where shall bend
In recognition of His power
Foretold, and now encompassed by this final hour.              
Then the Creator-Son
His mortal conflict done,
      Will fold all Cosmos in His firm embrace,
Where vast Intelligence
Uncounted Eons hence
      Will praise His Name and magnify His grace;
And each, enrobed in flesh and bone
Renew the Plan and seek progression as His own

But no! it is not so;
For us there can be no
      Other-Where or Other-When than here;
Let us softly leave
While day-larks gently weave
      Their lullabies to fall on Infant ear;
And let Him, as we found Him, sleep
Surrounded by poor shepherds, with their lowly sheep.

The sullen clouds have fled,
By day’s sweet brightness led;
      And in my heart I find a welcomed bliss;
For while the Infant dreams,
The nooning Sun now beams
      And on my burgeoning garden leans to kiss
The warming earth and interpose
With crowning Iris spears, the Lily, and the Rose.

[This poem appears in Tales Through Time, Wildside Press, 2010.]

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Joe McKinney, CROOKED HOUSE--A Worthy Successor to a Literary Tradition

Crooked House
Joe McKinney
Dark Regions Press, 2013

Joe McKinney’s Crooked House has all of the elements necessary for a successful…and deeply eerie…tale of a haunted house.
It has a central family, in this case two parents and a child, the parents keeping their own secrets while working to hold the small group together. Individually and as a whole, they are fragile, their reality verging upon becoming a nightmare. For Dr. Robert Bell, the impending catastrophe takes the form of an onslaught of bills that he will never be able to meet, coupled with just having lost his teaching job at a Florida university due to a “catastrophic meltdown.” For his wife, Sarah, it is the persistent threat that her daughter’s natural father will somehow convince the courts to grant him full custody. For both of them, it is the sense that their lives, their marriage, their fundamental connections to each other are unraveling.
Into their darkness comes a sudden offer of redemption: a new position at Lightner University in San Antonio (which is, by the way, a wonderfully suitable name). And with it comes the unexpected bonus of free housing, not in some stereotypical cookie-cutter unit but in a house that is indisputably a mansion. And here the true nightmare begins to insinuate itself. The house, while “simple, even elegantly so” and not unattractive in spite of its fourteen bedrooms, conservatory, formal entrance, and all of the other trappings associated with wealth and power, is…well, crooked. Bell’s first reaction is that it is haunted. In light of his immediate impression, he is wary: “I've read my Henry James, my Shirley Jackson. Christ, I even read The Shining. This place is crawling with ghosts, isn’t it?” Then he enters.
And there it is, the sine qua non of haunted-house fictions, the notorious Bad Place that systematically attempts to destroy those who enter.
Even though Crook House—named for its builder—is located in an upscale part of San Antonio, it is as isolated and as isolating as the Overlook Hotel or Hill House, although more psychologically than physically. From the moment Bell walks in, he feels uncomfortable, out of his element, and weighted down by a wrongness that has nothing to do with Crook House’s size or checkered past. And every moment he spends within its walls, every moment that Sarah and their daughter Angela spend there, something essential is leached from them, altering the personalities and their relationships. Most of the story takes place inside; and those passages that do not merely emphasize the extent of the changes taking place.
The story covers nine days, concluding on Christmas Eve day. In those nine days, McKinney methodically strips the characters bare, penetrating the secrets they have struggled to keep, and setting up a series of devastating revelations, the repercussions of which echo backward and forward, contorting every assumption that Bell, Sarah, and the readers have made about the family and their abrupt good fortune.
The ending is appropriately savage, bloody, and ultimately discomfiting. McKinney has learned well from James, Jackson, and King; the story concludes with a certain ambiguity, an uncertainty that locks the story firmly into the uncanny. It is not, perhaps, a just ending, certainly not a Pollyanna ending, but it is entirely appropriate to this particular Bad Place, to the cast of characters and their complex interactions, and to the histories—those alluded to and those in part developed—that form the backdrop of Crook House.
 Crooked House is a seamless read, riveting from the first page to the last…and in some important ways, unsettling from the introductory quotations from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anne Rivers Siddons, and D.H. Lawrence. Everything about the book compels interest; emphasizes darkness and dread, isolation and disintegration; and results in a solid reading experience.  

Friday, February 13, 2015


Dark Bride: 3 Gates of the Dead—Book II
Jonathan Ryan
Open Road Integrated Media, April, 2015

The second installment in Jonathan Ryan’s 3 Gates of the Dead series, Dark Bride, caught my attention on page one and kept it for nearly 340 more pages…but not for the reasons I might list for most novels generally classified as “horror.” In fact, the first sentences—“The church is a whore. The church is your mother”—seem to link the story more to theology than to monsters, gruesome deeds, or uncanny situations.
Nor do the next few pages suggest the directions the story will soon take. A small group, referring to themselves as “Scoobies,” have met in a local pub for their Sunday-evening get-together, where they discuss matters relating to religion, not unsurprisingly since one of them is a Presbyterian pastor and another an Anglican priest. Also among those present is the “resident skeptic,” a physics professor from a nearby university, whose self-appointed purpose is to keep thinks from becoming too ethereal, too other-worldly. For much of the time, they simply chat.   
A summary such as this sounds rather insipid, until one realizes how adroitly Ryan is using the time—to establish essential characters through their actions and their speech rather than by merely describing them; to suggest the commonplace, largely ordinary locale for the story—mid-west America; and to leaven those introductions with touches of humor that humanize every participant, especially with the mention of the “curse jar” into which each drops a quarter for every bad word, the contents to go to charity.  
But more than that, and almost without the reader noticing it, Ryan surveys the key actions and consequences covered in the first volume of the series, 3 Gates of the Dead (2014). In lesser hands, such information would probably have ended up as undigested lumps blocking the current narrative; in Ryan’s it forms a seamless part of a dialogue that ends abruptly with the intrusion of the supernatural.
With the second chapter, things become complicated. There is a sacrifice evoking a voodoo ritual. Eerie events at a local farm that rapidly escalate from spectral lights to physical assaults and spiritual sieges. One man’s seemingly innocuous flirtation with computer sites best left unviewed that gradually entwines everyone in the story in a perilous web of fear, terror, and horror. The discovery of an ages-old secret society devoted to hunting down and destroying evil…actually, of two of them, one bluntly physical and the other partaking of the mystical, yet both essentially seeking the same ends. There is a world in which “the fight against evil is a real fight, with real casualties and real sacrifices.”
By the end of Dark Bride much has been accomplished in that fight…but much more remains, presumably to form the core of subsequent books.

Dark Bride is, to me, a remarkable novel for what, on the surface, seems a rather unremarkable reason.
It is a difficult story to categorize precisely. The first novel in the series has been described as blending “theology, murder mystery, horror, and paranormal investigation,” which might serve as an overview of Dark Bride, except that stringing together the names of so many disparate genres and sub-genres suggests that Dark Bride might be more patchwork than integrated pattern—and it certainly is not. It is focused, unswerving, and precise in what it sets out to do and how it achieves its end.
More generally, Dark Bride might be called simply “horror,” but to do so would miss multiple layers of complexity, several almost as important to the novel as are its eerie happenings, gruesome deaths, and inexplicable appearances. And while that single word might be the tag assigned by a bookstore as a convenient sales strategy, it would ultimately not be true to the novel.
Lest anyone think I have lost sight of my earlier sentence, I haven’t. Trying to pin the novel down to a specific “kind” leads directly to the reason I found the story so remarkable. Let me explain.
Several months ago, I published a short study of C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) titled, unsurprisingly enough C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy. In it I attempted to show that one of the most direct ways into the three novels was by seeing each as Lewis’s attempt to use different literary forms to achieve a single end. Out of the Silent Planet, I argued, seems superficially science-fictional, when in fact it opens itself more completely when read as essentially fantasy. Perelandra is so strongly tied to mythic backgrounds, particularly the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, that it seems difficult to see it through any other lens except that of Myth (meaning the ultimately true Stories we tell ourselves to explain the universe). And That Hideous Strength…well, that one is almost always the sticking point for contemporary readers. It is science-fictional, yes, but then there is also that untidiness, almost an unpleasantness, with Merlin, with Planetary Overlords descending to Earth (also read: angels), with the Tower of Babel, with the Fisher King…with any number of things that basically have nothing to do with science fiction.
And that, I concluded, is the “secret” to the novel. It is science fiction, but of a sort that encompasses not only scientific innovations but—gasp!—God and Angels, Myth and Religion,   as functional components of  Lewis’s narrative reality. That Hideous Strength can incorporate theology, murders, elements of horror, and the supernatural and still claim to be science fiction because it is SF of a particular sort: Christian Science Fiction.
Wait a moment…. “Theology, murders, elements of horror, and the supernatural.” Given a slight difference in wording, those are the same characteristics readers have found in 3 Gates of the Dead and will find in Dark Bride. And the reason is as unremarkable as the novel is remarkable: Jonathan Ryan is writing, not just contemporary horror or yet another supernatural thriller, but Religious—even, perhaps, Christian—Horror.
Actually comparisons between Ryan’s story and Lewis’s Ransom novels are quite fitting. There is a tone to each, a matter-of-factness that elevates them above the superficialities of their genres and allows readers to enter their worlds completely, especially its religious elements. Neither Lewis nor Ryan overtly preaches, although the theological underpinnings are always present. Neither presents a merely one-sided view of humanity, nature, and the universe; hence, the presence in both stories of an objective, dispassionate rationalist. Both accept from the inception that great evils exist—supernatural evils—that must in the end be combatted by mortals. But a key addendum to that acceptance is a parallel assumption. In the words of a seventeenth-century writer, “If witches, then God; if no witches, no God.” In other words, if great evil exists, even if only for narratives purposes, then so must supernal goodness.
Dark Bride deals with mere mortals confronting immortals…or, at least, entities whose lives seem not to fall under normal rules. Ryan’s characters know that they represent righteousness; but they do not sit back and wait for God to take care of them. Nor do they behave as do the stereotyped priests and ministers of much horror, who seem content to thrust a cross in the face of a vampire and expect the creature to self-implode; Stephen King destroyed that cliché in ‘Salem’s Lot decades ago.
Instead, they set out to meet evil on its own grounds but steadfastly refuse to play the game according to its rules. And that is why I enjoyed the novel so much. Common people are revealed to be much more than what they appear to be, in a world that, layer by layer, similarly reveals itself to contain more than one might ever imagine. Through reading Dark Bride, one may take that imaginative step and enter.
Highly recommended.