Agents of Dreamland

August 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

agentsAgents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Agents of Dreamland is my first exposure to Caitlín Kiernan. I’ve known of her for a long time (I even had a copy of Silk for a long time), but she never pinged my radar enough for me to read her work. Later, I found a quote of hers where she discarded the use of plot in creative writing, and I, being a function-over-form reader, figured she wasn’t for me. I kept hearing good things about this novella, though, and I figured it was time to try her out.

I’m glad I did, because what I found is a story that has some plot (just enough, really), but excels for its use of language, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a piece that draws on The X-Files as much as Lovecraft, and it paints a picture of a moment that presents a terrible future. It flows through time, and introduces us to a couple of characters who appear to be on the same side, but are only marginally so. We don’t get caught up in their relationship, nor are we presented with the characters in such a way that we find ourselves immediately relating to and caring for them, but that’s not the point of the story, so it’s hard to complain about it.

Kiernan has an hallucinatory style to her narrative that’s a perfect fit for a story like this. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors have always resembled something from a bad acid trip, and here we have a writer who embraces that style with her writing. She also peppers the story with some named horrors lifted right out of our reality, giving the book a sense of reality, and reminding us that we don’t have to look far to find something to fear. The novella is an unsettling piece of work.

Suffice it to say, I’m impressed. I’m not sure if her style would sustain me over the length of an entire novel, but I’m more willing to give her a shot now than I was before. Agents of Dreamland strikes me as a perfect starting point for Kiernan. I can see that she wouldn’t be a writer for just anyone (heck, the jury’s still out on whether she’s one for me), but readers who like the dark and questionable and enjoy stories that aren’t traditionally told should give her a chance.

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Harrison Squared

August 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

harrisonHarrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

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This is an odd book. It’s a prequel to Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine, in that it tells the story of one of the characters in that book, Harrison Harrison, whose life inspired a series of children’s books. The thing is, Harrison Squared is that children’s book (well, YA at best), which makes it not just a prequel but also a meta story related to the original work.

Harrison travels with his mom, a marine biologist, to a town in Massachusetts called Dunnsmouth, where she hopes to capture footage of an underwater beast. Harrison thinks she’s after giant squids and the like, but Dunnsmouth is hiding something far more interesting than the usual deep-sea creatures. In fact, the creature she’s hoping to discover relates back to when Harrison’s father was killed, and when Harrison himself lost his left leg.

This is a wildly compelling book, which surprises me, since WAACF didn’t grip me the same way. Gregory captures his characters well, doing that thing good writers do where you try to pinpoint where, exactly, you started to relate to the characters so well, but it happens so slowly over the course of the narrative that you can’t do it. They grow organically, building relationships in the same way real people do, over time and (sometimes) reluctantly, and they do it so well that it’s impossible not to root for them.

The plot is a little simplified, but the story doesn’t suffer for it. Key characteristics of the characters will obviously play into plot resolutions near the end, but Gregory handles his characters so well that it’s hard to complain about it. The story itself doesn’t answer all the questions it asks, which isn’t always a bad thing, but here it feels more like a cliffhanger ending than an ambiguity that’s intended to make the reader think. I read an interview that suggests Gregory hopes to make a trilogy out of this, but that he hasn’t written anything else in the series yet. I feel a little cheated by it, but hopefully the book does well enough to justify getting the rest of these books written. You know, as soon as possible.

Harrison Squared wasn’t a book I was itching to read, but it surprised me. WAACF wasn’t one of those books that made me want to go out and read everything Gregory wrote, but Harrison Squared is. I see a lot of his books have won acclaim and awards, so I’ve added another book of his to my to-read list (current count: 600+). I’m eager to see how Pandemonium shakes out.

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Dread Island

July 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dreadDread Island by Joe R. Lansdale

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Dread Island is a story Joe Lansdale wrote for an anthology called Classics Mutilated. In it, the authors take classic stories and mash them together with other genres to see what comes out at the other end. In Dread Island, Lansdale mashes up Huck Finn, Uncle Remus, and the Cthulhu Mythos (along with a dash of Peter Pan) to create what can only be described as some super-mojo storytelling, as one would expect from Lansdale.

Lansdale captures the voice of Mark Twain well, which is no surprise since his East Texas style lends itself to that voice. The themes of his fiction are also parallelled with Twain’s, since they both look at racial injustice in the South. Of all the writers to write like Mark Twain, Lansdale is the best choice; of all the writers to mix in Uncle Remus and Cthulhu into Mark Twain’s style, Lansdale is probably the only choice.

Like a lot of Lansdale’s short stories and novellas, Dread Island is intended for Lansdale’s most hardcore fans. Fans of his Hap and Leonard stories, or his East Texas mysteries like Sunset and Sawdust or A Fine Dark Line, might not be prepared for this much of an oddity, especially if they haven’t read, say, “Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland” or “Dog, Cat, and Baby”. Lansdale’s delving into his weird oeuvre here, which is much weirder than his standard fiction.

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Dark Screams: Volume One

July 6, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

screamsDark Screams: Volume One, edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar

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For the most part, I avoid short story collections unless they’re by authors on my Must Read. Everything. Right Now. Or As Soon as It’s Available. list. The last significant anthology by various authors I’ve read (not counting Six Scary Stories) is 999, from way back in 2000. This collection was only 99 cents, though, and it included a rare Stephen King story, and I couldn’t resist.

The first story — the headliner — is Stephen King’s “Weeds”, a story not reprinted since its initial publication in 1976. “Wait!” I hear you saying. “It was in Creepshow!” Well, yes, it was, but after reading this story, you’ll find they’re very different. Sure, the high points are still there — Jordy Verrill, a simple-minded handyman finds a meteor that sprouts grass on whatever it touches, taking over Jordy and his house — but the version in Creepshow is remarkably better. There’s something scarier about a passive threat to the planet than a thoughtful, malicious one like King presents in the original story. Still, it’s early King, when his style wasn’t quite as overwrought as it is now, and it’s fun to be able to go back and experience it again.

“The Price You Pay” by Kelly Armstrong is the next story, and might be better classified as a thriller than a horror story. It’s about toxic relationships, and how men and women react to them. It’s somewhat pedestrian, in that this is a story written and read time and again, but the author mentions that in the story itself, making me question if that’s the point. Stories like this are only relevant when they affect you in some way, otherwise they’re just “the same old story”. That alone makes it thought-provoking.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” follows, and is about a mental patient keeping a journal. He’s in the hospital because he killed his wife, but of course that’s not his take on things. This is another kind of story we’ve read several times (if we’re fans of horror, that is), and there’s not much to it to elevate it above all those other tales. At the very least, Pronzini creates an effective reliable narrator, while showing us that he’s the opposite.

Next is “Murder in Chains” by Simon Clark, a pointless story about abduction and survival. And mindless killing. It’s stories like these that remind me why I’m not as into horror as I used to be, and makes me question why I was into it as much as I was when I was younger.

Concluding the anthology is Ramsey Campbell’s “The Watched”. Campbell is a hit-or-miss author with me, with more misses than hits, but his short story “The Words That Count” is a favorite of mine, and is especially chilling. This story isn’t quite as resonant, but it’s definitely creepy. Campbell captures the proper atmosphere of the story, and creates some haunting imagery. It’s a bloodless horror story, and is more effective for it.

Armstrong’s and Campbell’s story are worth the price of the collection, and King’s story is an amusement, especially for his Constant Readers. The rest are just okay, though more hardcore fans of horror might find the stories more to their liking. The collection overall doesn’t inspire me to read the remaining volume, even though some heavy hitters like Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, and Jack Ketchum are among the featured authors.

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Scooby Apocalypse: Volume 1

June 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

scoobyScooby Apocalypse: Volume 1 by Keith Giffen, et al.

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There were three reasons I had to read this book:

1. Keith Giffen. I’m a long-time fan of Ambush Bug.
2. J.M. DeMatteis. Two of my favorite comics are Brooklyn Dreams and Moonshadow.
3. Afterlife with Archie. It was much better than I expected it to be.

Scooby Apocalypse is another gritty horror reboot of a kids’ franchise, only it’s handled much less evenly than Afterlife with Archie. The writers of that title had an understanding of the characters they were writing, and maintained the characters while putting them into an unreal situation. Giffen and DeMatteis ignored the characters of the original cartoon, save for the high points (a talking dog; a hipster companion; Velma’s smarts), and went off in their own direction with the characters.

Velma is probably the biggest change, since she’s not that likable a character. She’s part of the science lab that’s caused the apocalypse of the title, but she’s cold, distant, and seemingly uncaring. Daphne is a TV reporter, working on a show about mysterious mysteries that airs on the Knitting Channel (?), and is a determined, upwardly-mobile personality. Scooby is a regular Great Dane turned into a cybernetically enhanced dog thanks to experiments in Velma’s lab. Shaggy is a dog trainer at the lab who takes a liking to Scooby because he’s considered a failure for not being as assertive as the other dogs. Fred … well, Fred may as well not even be there, for all he contributes to the story. And, true to the original show, the less said about Scrappy, the better.

It’s possible to take the characters and update them successfully without taking away from their characters; Scooby Doo on Zombie Island darkens the tone, advances the franchise, and tells a good story, all while staying true to the characters. Scooby Apocalypse, on the other hand, does none of these things. Even as it attempts to make the tone more serious, it does so in such a way as it’s easy to laugh at the attempt.

Speaking of laughter, the jokes here fell so flat as to be embarrassing. Shaggy still says “Zoinks!”, Velma still says “Jinkies!”, and Velma’s last name is still Dinkley, but these reveals are deliberately played for laughs, at the characters’ expense. The characters aren’t even friends, save for Shaggy and Scooby, which means it’s harder to sympathize with them as a group, especially when they don’t even trust each other.

A key element of the story in the book is how Daphne doesn’t trust Velma, since she was a part of the lab that released the plague that created all of the monsters. Velma insists that it wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did, and the two of them spar about this particular point for the entire. Dang. Book. We get it: We can’t trust Velma, because Daphne doesn’t. We don’t need it repeated to us every three pages or so. It became tiresome, especially when Daphne would begin to trust Velma, only to suddenly shift back to not trusting her after something else happened.

The artwork is fine, but I was disappointed to see a gratuitous panty shot in the comic. Yes, Velma’s skirt is pretty short, and yes, running from monsters means she’s less likely to worry about what’s showing than, say, surviving, but it’s not necessary to the story.

Stories about monsters and zombies are rarely subtle, but they can approach their subjects with a subtlety if done correctly. Scooby Apocalypse is not one of those stories. Despite the collection ending on a cliffhanger, I won’t pursue this title any further. I blame myself for getting suckered into the premise, but I blame Afterlife with Archie for starting this kids’-books-as-horror-comics trend.

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The Walking Dead, Volume 27: The Whisperer War

June 26, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

warThe Walking Dead, Volume 27: The Whisperer War by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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This is what I expect from The Walking Dead: action; zombies; fighting; drama; emotion; sacrifice. It’s part of the reason I like the comic more than the show. At the very least, the characters in the comic are consistent, and never forced into being what they need to be for the plot. Lately, the show has been so focused on Negan and his insanity that it’s lost sight of what makes the entire story interesting. Even the last collection felt underwhelming, for the same reason. Kirkman keeps the story on track, though, and reminds us that he still has it in him to write a good arc.

The title of the collection pretty much summarizes the events. Rick and his gang go up against the Whisperers and their horde. They’re a spooky bunch, with some effective tactics, and the story is creepy, not just because of the zombies, but because there’s actually something to fear with the Whisperers. Security and humanity are at risk here, much more than they were when Rick and Co. went up against Negan, Inc.

Speaking of Negan, he’s back, as we already knew from the previous collection, and maybe he’s up to something, and maybe he’s not. Either way, we see a side of him not seen before. Kirkman actually gives us a moment where we sympathize with him, after presenting him to us in such a way as to make us want to see him dead up until now. It doesn’t change a thing about his character, but it tells us more about him than we already knew.

The Whisperer War is The Walking Dead back on track. I can’t help but think how much better the show would be if they would just stick to the characters as the comic presents them. At least we still have the comic, going strong, to let us see the potential behind the show.

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Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium

June 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

soulsTortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium by Clive Barker

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With Clive Barker, I’m a take-it-or-leave-it reader. I used to read his stuff as religiously as I did Stephen King’s, but over time, I lost interest. I’m not sure why; the man still has a vivid imagination that goes into some dark, dark places, and every time I read another work of his, I’m impressed. I wouldn’t have read this novella, except for the fact that it was part of the Subterranean Press Humble Bundle.

Only, Tortured Souls isn’t really a novella. It’s a collection of six short stories Barker wrote to promote a series of figurines he produced with Todd McFarlane. It’s easy to tell from the stories which figure is the focus of each story, but it starts with Agonistes, a being who can take mortals and make them into nightmares. The book begins with his legend, and then moves on to two characters whom he recreates into something to take revenge. Seeing as this is Clive Barker, this isn’t just a pop-’em-in-the-back-of-the-head kind of revenge; it’s much more torturous and graphic.

By themselves, the stories suffer because Barker doesn’t do much to describe the creatures in each story. Each chapter is prefaced with an illustration, but not all of them are descriptive, and it seems like Barker was relying on the figures to serve as the description. In their original release, this would have been fine, but in a collected book format, we needed more than what he provided. Pictures of the figurines would have been ideal, but I suppose there’s copyright interfering with that possibility.

Also, the stories were written to be standalone, inasmuch as they were released individually with the figures, so a few of them give a summation of the stories that precede them. Again, this makes sense, given their original release method, but as a standalone collection being marketed as a novella, it’s redundant. I’m not sure why the author or an editor didn’t clean up parts like that to make the story flow better.

Finally, for as much as the story is about the two main characters, there wasn’t much connection to them. The stories read more like vignettes, even though they all together made up a larger story, so we don’t get much of an insight into what makes them tick. The characters are who they need to be, no questions asked. Sure, it keeps the story moving forward, but it doesn’t make the reader empathize with what’s happening to them.

The overall story here is interesting enough, and the imagery is memorable, but there’s not much here to recommend it to readers outside of his hardcore fan base. It’s a quick read, certainly, but there are better Barker books to read for people who are unfamiliar with his style. Imajica or Weaveworld would be better places to start for casual readers, though anyone into dark fiction would do better to start with The Hellbound Heart or The Damnation Game.

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Beast in the Basement

June 13, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

beastBeast in the Basement by Jason Arnopp

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Before starting this book, I knew there was going to be a twist in it. I hadn’t heard of the author before, so when I saw something suggesting this was a good, tight read, I checked a few reviews to see what they had to say, and nearly all of them talked about the shocking twist. So, yes, I was predisposed to expect it, but I think even if I had gone into the story blind, I would have been expecting some kind of twist. It was evident the way Arnopp wrote the story that something wasn’t all that it seemed.

To his credit, Arnopp did surprise me. Despite expecting the twist, I didn’t figure it out before its reveal. It wasn’t even a cheat, either, since the story as he wrote it supports the direction it takes. It reminded me of the twist in Shyamalan’s The Visit, not that it’s similar in any way, but in the way it takes you by surprise, and in the way it doesn’t conclude with that twist, but instead takes you a little further into the story once it’s revealed.

For all that, though, the twist seemed a little ridiculous. I’m not saying it’s implausible, or unsupportable, but it didn’t have the kind of impact I expected, given how well Arnott sets up the tension of the story. It was a kind of “That’s it?” moment, and then a shake of my head as it concluded. Like Stephen King’s reveal of Pennywise’s true form, the truth of this story didn’t live up to the setup.

There’s really just one main character in the story, though Arnopp brings in a potential love interest for him. She’s barely defined, and not much of a character, despite being necessary for the main character’s development. It would have been different if he had realized her character more, but as it is, she’s there simply as a means to motivate the main character, and winds up being window dressing.

Arnopp’s previous credits include several screenplays, which shows in this novella. He tells more than he shows, and the pacing is a bit clunky, as it seems to progress too slowly at first, though it does pick up near the end. In fact, I think this story would work well as a short movie, since plot-wise, the story succeeds fairly well.

Ultimately, the story is all plot, without sufficient character development. In some cases, this is OK (Dean Koontz’s Icebound is one of those stories, and I remember tearing through that book in one sleepless night), but here, it feels like a detriment. It’s not a bad story (judging by the number of four- and five-star reviews, it certainly isn’t), but maybe I’m not the right audience for it. Still, it was only 99 cents, and I’ve read a lot worse than this for more money than that.

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The Ballad of Black Tom

April 4, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

balladThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

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Last year, I read The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was a feminist response to H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. These responses seem to be a new trend, since The Ballad of Black Tom is written as a response to “The Horror at Red Hook”. Initially, I was going to wait to write my review of LaValle’s book until I read Lovecraft’s story, but after reading the first few chapters, I realized something: I just don’t like Lovecraft.

I recognize and appreciate his place in horror, but his prose style is so dense, his themes potentially so offensive, that I don’t have a lot of patience for it. I have a ton of stuff I want to read, so why put myself through reading something I don’t like? I feel like reading summaries of the stories is enough for me to grasp his intents, which leaves me more time to read something that’s written much better, like The Ballad of Black Tom.

“The Horror at Red Hook” is considered to be the most racist thing he ever wrote, so it’s interesting to see LaValle’s take on it. Here, we see the same story, told from the perspective of Tommy Tester, a blues musician and con man who lives in Harlem and is hired by Robert Suydam to play at a party. Tester discovers that Suydam has greater intentions than just a party — and that’s where Lovecraft’s influence comes into play — but instead of turning away from it in horror, he embraces it.

Part of what makes Tommy comfortable with the cosmic horrors at play is that they’re almost nothing compared to what he has to deal with as a black man living in white America. LaValle shows how powerless he is against the police, society, or even the average white man. When faced with the real threat of racism, what’s a little Great Old One? At the very least, it gives Tommy the power to walk through the streets without fear. So begins the conversion from Tommy Tester to Black Tom.

Readers who are already familiar with “The Horror at Red Hook” will likely get the most out of this novella, but the story succeeds by itself, too. Regardless, this new trend of retelling Lovecraft’s tales with a modern perspective helps bring new life to older stories, while also addressing the problems of his fiction. Additionally, it helps me discover new writers like LaValle and Kij Johnson, which might be the best thing of all about the trend.

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A House at the Bottom of a Lake

March 29, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

houseA House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman

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I haven’t read Bird Box. Yet. It’s on my list, based on good reviews, and the fact that it’s horror, but I haven’t made my way to it. A House at the Bottom of a Lake might make me move it up my list.

This novella is horror, because there are some elements to it that make you wonder what’s real and what’s imagined, but to classify it strictly as horror would be a disservice to the story. It’s really a story about first love, told against the backdrop of a house a young couple discovers at the bottom of a lake.

Malerman captures the two main characters well. His story stays focused on the two of them. Occasionally, another character might pop up in the story, but the only two people who matter in this story are James and Amelia. The book opens with their awkward meeting, continues to their awkward first date, and then starts to take shape once they find something to open up about — the house. From there, their relationship develops, and as it does, so does the house.

The story is unnerving without being explicit. Malerman does a great job creating atmosphere, and showing things that aren’t graphic or horrifying, but certainly show that things aren’t right. It’s slightly off-kilter, and Malerman maintains that feeling in his narrative by jumping between his two main characters’ points of view without making a clean break. At first, I thought the style was a detriment to the story; later I realized it was supporting it.

I like horror done right. By that I mean I want a story that gives you a shiver, not one that shocks you with how graphic it is. In some ways, “done right” means that it will appeal to people who aren’t fans of horror, since the horror will be subtle enough to create that chill while telling a different kind of story around it. A House at the Bottom of a Lake is horror done right.

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