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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We Are All Completely Fine

March 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

fineWe Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

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The back of the book categorizes it as “Dark Fantasy”, but I see this as horror. Maybe it’s a fine distinction, but to me, dark fantasy is a more traditional fantasy story, with darker elements, whereas this one is about monsters and terrible things. Lots and lots of terrible things. Either way, it definitely deserves the “dark” tag.

The book is about a support group led by a psychologist, but it’s a unique group of people. One of them is a woman who, when younger, had her arms and legs filleted so a man could inscribe scrimshaw on her bones. Another is a man who, years before, was the only survivor of a cannibal family. Another woman has intricate scars all over her arms, and another man sees things he can’t explain in his virtual reality game. Then there’s Harrison, a famous monster hunter whose escapades inspired a series of children’s novels. They’re all survivors of extraordinary events, but all of them are drawn into a larger mystery that ties them all together.

The story is told in the first person, but it’s not clear who the narrator is. It sounds like it’s someone from the group — the opening line is “There were six of us in the beginning” — but just as you start to think you have a grip on who it is, the story shifts to be told from someone else’s perspective, and you’re uncertain again. It’s an effective device that parallels the uncertainty of the story itself, keeping you off kilter as much as the characters in the story are.

I would have liked this more, but it feels incomplete. The story is resolved completely, but it feels like there are missing details to help flesh out the characters. There’s another book published after this one that looks at Harrison’s character some more, but it’s a prequel, not a sequel, so I’m not sure it will help. Then again, Harrison’s character is the one that feels incomplete, so maybe it will answer more questions.

The book has a lot of high praise, but I wouldn’t recommend it beyond fans of horror or Chuck Palahniuk. It’s certainly dark, and while it’s not particularly gruesome (there are some squicky parts, but they’re not told in graphic detail), it’s unnerving. If you think you can stomach the story based on the description of the characters, though, you should give it a read.

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H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers

March 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

cthulhuH.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers by R.J. Ivankovic

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I first heard about this project a few years back when the artist showed off a few pages on Deviant Art. A few blogs picked it up, and I (along with a slew of other people) responded with “Shut up and take my money!”, so a few years later, we finally have this book in our hands. And it’s fantastic.

To prep for reading the book, I went back and read through the original story, just to have the details fresh in my mind. I wanted to see how well the author adapted the story into Seuss’ anapestic tetrameter, and the answer is “Extraordinarily well”. He hits all the high points of the story, from the first book where the narrator finds his uncle’s research, to Legrasse’s recounting of the cult in New Orleans, to the doomed expedition to R’lyeh in the third book. He combines the text with the whimsical illustrations reminiscent of Seuss, though he doesn’t hesitate to hint at child sacrifice and men eaten alive by Cthulhu.

It’s safe to say that this book is aimed toward the hardcore Lovecraft fan, but I think anyone familiar with the mythos and is a fan of whimsy will find a lot to like about the book. I’d recommend reading it aloud to get the full effect of the verse and how well Ivankovic captures it.

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Alien: River of Pain

January 31, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

riverAlien: River of Pain by Christopher Golden

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This is the third book in the so-called Canonical Alien Trilogy, which ties in with the first two movies in the series. Out of the Shadows covered the time between Alien and AliensSea of Sorrows covered the time two-hundred years after Aliens, and River of Pain covers the time just before Aliens. Specifically, it covers the formation of Hadley’s Hope, the colony on LV426 where all the devastation before the movie takes place.

Interestingly, fans of the movie who watched the extended director’s cut of the movie will already be familiar with some of the details in this book. Golden uses dialogue and scenes straight out of the material that was cut for the theatrical release, as well as using material from uncut scenes. He blends it together to make the book more like an Expanded Universe book for the Alien franchise, telling us more about Newt and her family. It works well, namely because Golden’s characterization skills are good.

By the time Ripley and the Marines arrive on LV426, Newt is the only remaining survivor of the colony after the aliens got loose in the compound, so all the characters Golden creates are new. Newt is the focus of the story, but we also learn about her brother and her parents and all her friends in the colony. Colonial Marines are present in the story, too, which is a revelation, as they’re not mentioned as having a presence in the movie. The strongest relationship in the book exists between Newt and Captain Brackett, a new arrival to the colony and the new CO for the Marines.

The thing is, in order for the book to fit in with Aliens, we know everyone has to die by the end, and we know more or less how it happened. Golden does a good job of giving us more to care about — Captain Brackett has his hands full bringing his marines back under his control and dealing with rogues, for one — but in the end we know it’s going to end poorly for almost everyone involved. This was an issue with Out of the Shadows, too, but I think it works better here because we can flow straight from this story to Aliens to get the full extent of the book. After finishing the book, I re-watched the movie, and I think it helped form my opinion of the book.

I think it’s safe to say that anyone reading this book is already familiar enough with Aliens to get the most out of it. Folks who aren’t familiar with the movie might be confused, and see the ending as a let-down, but seriously, who’s going to be reading this book if they aren’t already a fan? Like me, folks who read this will segue straight into watching the movie again, and that’s the right way to do it. Just make sure to watch the director’s cut to get the most out of the story as possible.

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The Ghoul King

January 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

ghoulThe Ghoul King by Guy Haley

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The Ghoul King follows the adventures of Quinn, the Knight granted his position by the Angels, a race of beings that not only rule the devastated wastelands of the United States, but also might be the ones who caused it. Like The Emperor’s Railroad, the story is not told from his perspective, but is instead related to us through someone who accompanied him on the adventure. The story isn’t told strictly from his perspective, though; a beginning and ending chapter give us additional information about Quinn and the world he protects, and we start to see some of what lies behind the complex structure of religion and science that populates these novellas.

The Emperor’s Railroad gave us a post-apocalyptic story with zombies, and The Ghoul King gives us another post-apocalyptic story, this time with vampires. In neither case is the story about the creatures; instead, they’re about this future and how it came about. In the first novella, Haley hints at these Angels as not being as supernatural as the citizens believe, even though we see things that aren’t natural. The Ghoul King follows that same setup, but we start to see more of what lies behind the Angels, and we start to get a clearer picture of just how this world came to be.

Also like the previous novella, Haley spends a good chunk of the story building his world, but not at the cost of the story. We get bits and pieces of what’s happened here as we travel with Quinn on his adventure, but only when it’s relevant to the story. In The Ghoul King, much of that detail has to do with what came before the apocalypse and how it affects the world they’re living in now. We still don’t have all the answers, but I suspect that will be forthcoming in future novellas.

Anyone who enjoyed The Emperor’s Railroad shouldn’t hesitate to start on The Ghoul King. It follows the story Haley began in that novella without being a retread of the entire story, and it gives us further insight into Quinn as a character. These two novellas are rich and detailed, and it makes me look forward to the next story in this sequence. It’s just a shame I have no idea how long it will be before I can read the next one.

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The Emperor’s Railroad

January 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

railroadThe Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley

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The Tor novella series has been pretty reliable this year. I haven’t liked all the ones I’ve read, but of the ones I did like, I liked them quite a bit. I’m usually hesitant to read shorter works, since I don’t always feel like they have enough time to develop plots and characters enough, but I also believe that a work should only be as long as necessary, and they’ve hit that mark well. The Emperor’s Railroad is another good one.

The novella is set in the future of our world, after a world war has devastated enough of the world to knock us back into a Medieval era. There are remnants of the world before — the roads are no longer there, but the tunnels and cuts through the mountains remain as clear signs of the roads — but most of them are gone. The best technology available is steam technology, but even then, its use is seen as blasphemy by many. There’s a religion based around Angels who caused the devastation, and punish the living with dragons and the undead. This future world is also overrun with zombies, though this is far from being a zombie story.

The story centers on Quinn, a Knight who was put in service by the Angels. Most are dead, so Quinn is a relic of sorts, and he takes on an assignment to get a mother and her son through the wastelands so they can start a new life with a cousin. The story is told from the son’s perspective as he retells the story far in the future when he’s an old man, but Haley doesn’t skimp on the details because of that.

The bulk of the novella is in the world-building. He tells us the state of the world and how the religion has developed from the devastation, through events as they happen in the story. The son, the mother, and the Knight are all fully realized characters, but it’s their actions that tell us about this world. Haley also doesn’t overlook a plot through all of this, though, as what compels us to read the story is whether or not the son makes it to the city. It’s a perfect blend of plot and development.

The downside is that the bulk of the story is the world-building, tantalizing us with hints of a larger story that we won’t get in this brief book. There’s a second volume in this series already published (which I will definitely be reading), and I can see many more following if Haley continues it. I expect he will, since even two novellas doesn’t seem like enough space to tell everything about this world.

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The Christmas Spirit

January 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

spirit“The Christmas Spirit” by Brian James Freeman

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This seasonal short story was provided free by Cemetery Dance as a Christmas present for their customers. I can’t pass up free, especially when it will only take a few minutes to read, and it’s from Cemetery Dance. It has to be good and creepy, right?

Well, not always. This story is about a family who embraces Christmas, and this is the year they plan to win the neighborhood decoration contest. The main character is described as someone who had a rough time as a younger man, but who has embraced life and positivity thanks to a kind stranger who gave him a button at his darkest point that reads, “Remember the reason for the season!” He does (he still wears that button, in fact), so the beginning of the story comes off as a bit preachy. By the end, we realize he’s playing with us, but it was a bit off-putting at first.

Freeman does a decent job of setting up the expectations for the story before turning it on its head, but nothing else about the story makes it worthwhile. There’s zero characterization here. The characters are broadly drawn, and are described more than they’re presented. The family is an idyllic one, but we don’t know that through their interactions; we know that because Freeman tells us so.

The ending is sudden, and feels rushed, and it seems overly graphic. I think Freeman was trying to create a dichotomy between the pleasant Christmas season and the violent end of the story, but it felt forced to me. It felt like a bad episode of The Twilight Zone, and I can see this being a perfect story for the show, but as a story, it doesn’t make much of an impression.

Sure, the story is free, but it’s not really worth the time. Freeman can capture atmosphere well, but this story feels like an outline for a larger work and not a story in and of itself. Skip it.

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