Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street, East Providence, RI 02914
|Last Update 12/23/07|
The Vampire of New York by Lee Hunt, Signet, 1/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22279-4
I almost made a big mistake and passed this one by. I've overdosed on vampires lately, mostly of the paranormal romance variety, and the unprepossessing cover didn't do much for me either. But the blurb made it sound like a Dracula variation, which it is, and I read a few pages and was immediately dragged in. The story is in two parts. One is set during the Civil War. Dracula, actually Draculiya, has traveled to New York City after being driven out of England, pursued by the two children of Abraham Van Helsing, who believe Dracula killed their father. Dracula himself appears to be one of the last few true vampires in the world, truly immortal creatures from prehistory, only one of whom is actually evil. There are, however, dhampyres, which are humans who have been infected and who are, apparently, invariably evil. Dracula just wants to be left alone and the reader is nudged toward considerable sympathy for him.
The second, alternating, story is set in contemporary New York. A building site unearths a Civil War skeleton, a murder victim linked to a series of serial killings. An archaeologist and two police officers are charged with identifying the remains, but in doing so they uncover evidence of the bad guy's other activities. The interplay among the detectives is very well done, as is the relationship between Van Helsing's daughter, Echo, and a female Pinkerton detective who was, in fact, the first female private detective in the United States. Not surprisingly, there are clear parallels between the deaths in both cases. Dracula seeks to hunt down the evil vampire in 1863 while the detectives find a distressing similarity between the corpse they've uncovered from the excavation and a string of recent murders. There are connections to Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Jay Gold, Jim Fisk, the Civil War Monitor, and other historical personages and events. The story sucks you in and doesn't relinquish its grip until the final chapter. This appears to be a first novel and I'm impressed. The author also does a superb job of recreating the New York City of that period. 12/18/07
Update 12/23. A reader has told me that Lee Hunt appears to be Paul Christopher aka Christopher Hyde, both of which names have appeared on several books. That would explain the polished quality of this "first" novel.
Upon the Midnight Clear by Sherrilyn Kenyon, St Martins, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-312-94705-7
Wicked Game by Jeri Smith-Ready, Pocket, 5/08, $14, ISBN 978-1-4165-5176-8
Both of these are paranormal romances that you could put in supernatural/horror or dark contemporary fantasy. The definitions have become so fluid and the motifs and plots overlap so much that it's impossible to be precise. I've read several books by Sherrilyn Kenyon so I had an idea what to expect from hers. The second novel is apparently yet another debut into an increasingly crowded field. Kenyon's is the second in the Dream Hunter series. The romance is between a goddess who is on the run from Olympos, pursued by a powerful enemy, and a mortal who gave up riches and notoriety in order to live a quiet life. It's a surprisingly short, circumscribed novel about their meeting and the resolution of their problems. Not much substance to this one, which I didn't think was anyone close to Kenyon's usual standard. Smith-Ready's novel isn't as smooth written, and it's in present tense, an affectation that I always find distracting at best, actively annoying most of the time. It's actively annoying here, which is a shame because the author has come up with a really interesting variation of the vampire story. The protagonist gets a job at an oldies radio station and discovers that the disc jockeys are all vampires, each of them tied to the music - and hence the aura - of the years in which they were converted. This is more than just nostalgia. If they are cut off from their roots, they begin to "fade" in a fashion reminiscent of the male vampires in Whitley Strieber's The Hunger. So when a new corporation decides to buy out the station and change the format, the situation is dire for the undead. Our hero decides to save the station by boosting its ratings, and to do that she has the disc jockeys all "pretend" to be vampires as an advertising gimmick. Except that not everybody is happy with the situation and some of them want the campaign stopped, violently. The mix of humor, horror, and connivery works quite well. The present tense narration does not. 12/15/07
Black Magic Woman by Justin Gustainis, Solaris, 1/08, $15, ISBN 978-1-84416-541-8
Quincey Morris is an investigator who specializes in the supernatural, so it is only natural that his partner, Libby Chastain, should be a witch, though of the good variety. Morris spends a good deal of his time trying not to be killed or turned by vampires, not surprising given his name, but his major case in this - which is the first in a projected series - is about an ancient family curse linked to the Salem witchcraft trials. There's lots of bits about magical energy and its transmutation and a series of killings that forms a pattern which is being repeated. This is a comic book style supernatural adventure story more concerned with action than atmosphere, and it's a horror novel only because of the supernatural elements. I had no quarrel with the story, which holds no surprises but is well enough constructed. I did have some problem getting into the story because the prose has very little texture. There's a large proportion of dialogue mixed with just minimal descriptive passages and virtually no insight into the character's minds. It was entertaining while I was reading it, but I had no sense of the writer's voice or even of the personalities of the characters. 12/14/07
Doomsdays by Jeffrey Thomas, Dark Regions, 2007, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-0888993-49-6
Proverbs for Monsters by Michael Arnzen, Dark Regions, 2007, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-888993-54-7
I'm going to call both of these collections of horror stories, but that's rather an oversimplification. There are indeed horror stories in both collections. There are also fantasies, dark fantasies, suspense stories, and other stories that are just plain strange. The fact that they are mostly very good stories in both cases is more important than the label anyway. I've read quite a bit of Jeffrey Thomas' short fiction, and while I haven't always liked every individual one, the vast majority have always more than satisfied me, a few have stood out, but the really impressive thing is that he maintains a solid, intelligent prose style so consistently. There are quite a few short shorts (I guess nowadays we call this flash fiction) interspersed with the longer pieces. Most of the stories have been previously published but there are a handful original to this collection. It opens with one of the latter, which would sound like just another George Romero style zombies take over story if I described the plot, but the zombies are almost secondary
In "Ouroboros", the protagonist finds himself endlessly running away from his enemies in an apparently endless underground tunnel. "Post 153" is a Halloween story in which a group of ex-soldiers are visited by the people they killed during their various wars. "Apples and Oranges", a collaboration with brother Scott Thomas, describes a pretty weird obsessive relationship involving a disabled woman. There's an eerie encounter with an animated statue in "Praying That You Feel Better Soon" and an even more grotesque critter in "The Arms of the Sun." There's a good build up in "Twenty Five Cents", but I thought the payoff was a bit forced. Creatures come to life from human trash in "A Naming of Puppets" and a tape left by a necrophiliac leads to unpleasantness in "Gasp". One of my favorites is "The Friend of the Children" in which a man finds multiple babies popping into existence in his apartment. The remaining stories have equally strange elements - a sort of spoof of the detective story, people with no eyelids, and such. As bizarre as the subject matter often is, the stories are always about the people in them, not just a showcase for the grotesque. Definitely a collection of tales designed to be disturbing, as well as entertaining.
Michael Arnzen's collection has a similar mix of long and very short tales, and adds about fifty pages of poetry. The opening story is very short, about a man who turns himself into a kind of chicken. More substantial is "Exorcystland" which, as you might expect, is about a very strange amusement park. "Mr. Mouth" is about a man who collects pulled teeth, among other things. A mask refuses to be taken off in "The Boblin" and there's a variation of "The Vanishing American" by Beaumont called "Immaterial Girl" that's quite nice. "Fluid Mosaic" is the weakest and "Throb" probably my favorite. A diverse, amusing, and uniformly well written selection. The poems seem quite nice as well, but nothing really stood out there.
There's more humor in the Arnzen collection than in Thomas' stories. Although I enjoyed the latter somewhat more because of the darker twists in their craziness, I suspect that Arnzen will have broader general appeal, and many of his stories are excellent. Thomas writes more interesting short shorts, however. They usually have more punch and more startling imagery. Both books are well worth your while, however, and both deserve to be award contenders. 12/2/07
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill, Gollancz, 2007, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-575-08192-5
I never saw a copy of the PS Publishing edition of this collection of short stories, now out of print and very collectible, so I was very pleased to see a mass market edition. The quality level if very high throughout, and in fact I liked this a lot better than his novel, The Heart Shaped Box. The first story is "Best New Horror" which follows the adventures of an editor who tries to track down an elusive author and finds himself right in the middle of a horror movie cliché. Cute ending and decidedly creepy. "20th Century Ghost" also has a creep factor, although it's actually a sentimental story about a lonely ghost in a movie theater and efforts by people who have seen her to make sure the theater doesn't go out of business. "Pop Art" manages to make a story about a boy who is actually a balloon - plastic around air - sound poignant rather than satirical or farcical. a young boy turns into a giant insect in "You Will Hear the Locust Sing", a decidedly non-Kafkaesque tale. Dr. Van Helsing proves to have a dysfunctional family in "Abraham's Boys", probably the weakest of a very strong group of stories. An abducted child takes solace from an antique telephone in "The Black Phone", one of the best of the bunch. Kids and killers dominate in "In the Rundown" and "The Cape", affecting the lives of adults. "Last Breath" is a very strange piece about a man who collects the dying breaths of celebrities and displays them, sort of, in a museum. There's a strange game in "The Widow's Breakfast" and a chance encounter between old acquaintances on a movie set as some interesting repercussions in "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead." Two more strong stories finish out the collection. Uniformly high quality and a somewhat different perspective for horror fiction. Most of the horror is implied rather than overt, and we are touched more by the reactions of the characters than the terrors of their situation. Very impressive and hopefully a forecast of more and better to come. 11/30/07
The Hollow Earth by Steven Savile, Bloodletting, 2007, $15, ISBN 978-0-9768531-8-3
To enjoy this novelette thoroughly, you need to curl up in front of a roaring fireplace on a chilly night, keep the lights low, pour yourself a glass of brandy, and pretend the last hundred years or so was just a dream. The setting is London. A mysterious killer breaks into the British Museum and steals an ancient, occult artifact. It's a homunculus, which is also a key that opens a gateway between our world and the interior of the Earth, metaphysically at least because it is clearly hell. But the thief doesn't realize that he's dabbling with forces beside which he is insignificant. His error threatens the entire world, but a group of men from the Greyfriar's Club - who are wise to the ways of magic - discover what is happening and launch a desperate attempt to seal the rift. I enjoyed this one thoroughly and, frankly, think the author should consider expanding this to novel length. It just touches on plot elements that I'd like to see developed in more detail. For fans of occult adventure and psychic detectives. 11/30/07
Tequila's Sunrise by Brian Keene, Bloodletting, 2007, $50, no ISBN
This is a handsomely produced hardcover chapbook, a dark fantasy story set in the time of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. The protagonist is a young boy, Chalco, who is caught up in the violence as the Spaniards take advantage of their coincidental arrival in fulfillment of a prophecy about the return of an Aztec god. One day Chalco encounters what is apparently Huitzilopochtli, who has taken the form of a humble worm. He tells the boy that the god will not return, because whenever gods appear among men they are reviled and killed, crucified or shot - although that won't happen until the future. The god tells him he can save his people by traveling back through time and killing Cortez, but the journey goes awry and he visits a variety of times and places. This is actually more fantasy than horror, but there are some references to Keene's other - horror - fiction so his fans should not think he's wandering afield. Interior illustrations by Alex McVey are quite nice. 11/30/07
Dark Passions: Hot Blood 13 edited by Jeff Gelb and Michael Garrett, Kensington, 2007, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-7582-1413-3
The latest in this long running series of horror anthologies gets off to a pretty unprepossessing start. The first few stories, all by authors I'd never heard of, consist of routine, competently written but interesting stories about a haunted hammer, a possessed elevator, and similar subjects, all with self consciously erotic overtones. They're uninteresting and unmemorable, marginally erotic and not particularly horrifying. Roberta Lannes has the first interesting story, about three sisters with an unusual gift for sex. It goes on a little bit too long but not fatally so. Of the next three, only the story by Cody Goodfellow really held my attention and seemed to have something to say. They weren't badly written, just dull. Ed Gorman contributes a better story, but not one of his best, after which Chelsea Quinn Yarbro provides a more than satisfactory story about a remarkable woman and a chain of hotels. Gary Lovisi's story suggests a brand new perversion and editor Gelb has an interesting variation of the standard zombies take over the world story. One of the the best in the book is David Schow's, contribution, followed by a pretty good tale from Lisa Morton. Another excellent story is the one by Thomas Tessier, whose smooth prose always impresses me. Steve Niles has a clever story and P.D. Cacek's piece isn't bad. Finally Graham Masterton brings us a serial killer who specializes in pregnant women, and a specially created lifeform that he hadn't counted on. About half the stories here are actively good, while the rest - though all competently written - just didn't arouse my interest, or anything else. 11/28/07
Isabella Moon by Laura Benedict, Ballantine, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49767-3
It's always a pleasant surprise when a first novel by an unknown writer turns out to be a genuine pleasure to read. That's the case with this low key story of the supernatural. Kate Russell's dreams have been troubled by the presence of the ghost of Isabella Moon, a small girl murdered a year earlier. The ghost tells her where the body is buried and, after some soul searching, Kate tells the local sheriff who is skeptical until he finally does some digging and unearths the corpse, which makes him suspicious of the real source of Kate's knowledge, particularly since there is some mystery about her own past. Folded around this story is an illicit meth production facility, the inexplicable death of a high school student, and the murder of an older woman by means of a pitchfork in the back. All of these incidents appear to be linked by the ghostly presence.
I'm not going to tell you much more about the plot because I don't want to spoil it for you. There are levels within levels, but everything proceeds quite logically and plausibly. The characters are people you'll think of as real people and some of them you'll even care about. One of the best first novels I've read in a very long time. 11/27/07
The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher, Shaye Areheart, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-307-38280-1
Although this is being marketed as historical suspense, it's actually a very nice Victorian horror story. The chief protagonist is Tom Sayers, a former boxer turned theater group manager, who is framed for a series of brutal murders by a member of the troupe. He escapes the police and pursues his own investigation, with the assistance of a police detective and Bram Stoker, and discovers that the murders were connected to a method of extending the life of a damned soul. The man actually responsible dies shortly thereafter, but Sayers suspects that there is another man pulling the strings, and that man is in a position to do terrible harm to the woman Sayers loves. Efforts to bring the man, or whatever he has become, to justice aren't entirely successful, however, and a search that will consume years follows. The theater world of late 19th Century England is one of my long standing interests, so I was predisposed to like this from the outset, and the fact that I've enjoyed everything I've read by Gallagher in the past didn't hurt either. Atmospheric, complex, and thoroughly readable. You're short changing yourself if you don't read this one. 11/23/07
Demon Eyes by L.H. Maynard and M.P.N. Sims, Leisure, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5972-7
This Rage of Echoes by Simon Clark, Leisure, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5494-4
Dark Hollow by Brian Keene, Leisure, 2/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5861-4
I had a cold and was feeling miserable so I decided to spend most of the day curled up in a comfy chair reading about horrible things happening to people. This was the second book I'd read by Maynard & Sims, although they've had others published in the small press and in the UK. The first struck me as well written but with a standard plot; this one is considerably better. The protagonist is a young woman who has recently lost her lover and who has also received a sudden, not entirely explicable promotion to personal assistant. Her new boss, a prominent executive, wants her to come to a weekend party at his estate, which is designed to entertain some of their customers, and despite some misgivings she decides to go. But there's something not quite right about the situation, and when a local man publicly and violently mutilates himself for no obvious reason, we - if not she - immediately suspect that some kind of mind control is involved. There's more, but I won't spoil it by revealing the secrets. This one could have been a little creepier, but it was otherwise very fine indeed. Simon Clark is also from England, and I've read a whole lot of his novels. Some of them were better than this one, but I don't think any of them had quite as clever an idea. The protagonist is attacked by his doppelganger, but it's not an ordinary double, it's another person entirely who has been changed into a kind of murderous duplicate. This mixes bits and pieces from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the various doppelganger legends, and other sources in a very interesting new combination. The early chapters are a bit confusing at times, but stick with it. It's worth the wait. Last but not least is the latest from Brian Keene. Strange music from the woods leads a man to a strange sight - a neighbor cavorting naked around what appears to be a statue, until the statue starts to move. There's a hint of cliche in this - the forest is reputed to be "cursed" ground by the Native Americans. Then all of the local men start experiencing inexplicable sexual stimulation, after which women start disappearing. I won't be giving away any surprises if I tell you that the creature is a satyr because it's obvious from about the second chapter. Most of what follows is nicely done and a few of the characters come to life, but the story is slow to develop, and I was able to anticipate most of what was coming, particularly the trite surprise ending. Like all of Keene's novels, there are some very effective images and scenes. I also like his use of underutilized, traditional supernatural creatures like this one and ghouls and so forth. The last couple I've read, however, have the tension of The Rising and other early work. I never feel cheated when I read one of his novels, but I sometimes feel as though the author was in a hurry to finish and didn't invest the time to bring out the emotions in the situation. 11/20/07
The Deluge by Mark Morris, Leisure, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5893-5
One day a sudden flood overwhelms all but the tallest buildings in England, after which the waters subside and a handful of survivors band together to try to survive. Their efforts are hindered by the usual problems, but also by a species of shapechanging aliens who emerge afterwards, mimicking the now dead residents and feasting on their flesh. There are parts of this that are very gripping, but there were some nagging problems that interfered with my ability to really enjoy it. Firstly, there's the flood itself, does not seem to me to be scientifically possible. That's okay in horror stories, which is how this is packaged, but if you're going to use the trappings of SF in your horror, I think you have an obligation to make it plausible, or provide a viable alternative explanation. Secondly, the characters never really seemed authentic to me, and I was confusing some of them with one another right up until the end. Thirdly, the alien menace takes a long time developing, and then fails to deliver on the build up, the same complaint I had with Stephen King's recent The Cell. The scenes of devastation are well done, however, and some of the encounters with the creatures are genuinely creepy. The novel is almost quite good, but it never quite makes it there. 11/19/07
The Condemned by David Jack Bell, Deliriium, 1/08, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-90-4
Although this is being published as horror, it's really science fiction. In some near future city, an infection in the water supply is blamed for a disease which turns people into zombies, not quite the mindless, brain eating type found in George Romero movies, but pretty much less than human. The protagonist is a scavenger working for the government, salvaging wrecked cars and other raw materials to be used in an undefined war in Asia. He is living with terrible guilt because he was forced to leave his partner behind to be overcome by the zombies, aka the City people, and the guilt haunts his dreams. His new partner is a partially disabled war veteran who takes great pleasure in beating in the heads of the City people, but he also provides the bridge to a conspiracy theorist who believes that terrorists were not behind the infection. He thinks the government did it as a kind of organic slum clearance plan that may have gotten out of hand. What's more, the City people might not be the mindless organic machines that they are generally believed to be. This was quite well written, but the overwhelmingly depressing tone, coupled with the tiresome government conspiracy plot, sapped most of my interest. A promising first novel but not an award contender. 11/17/08
Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost, Avon, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-124508-4
Another contemporary fantasy adventure series debuts with this, the first of the Night Huntress novels. Our heroine is half human, half vampire, and she's trying to track down her missing father, who ran out on her mother and ruined their lives. Dad is, of course, one of the undead, so it's not surprising he didn't have a lucrative day job. Anyway, she gets captured herself by a vampire hunter who impresses her into service tracking down evil full bloods. It's only after she's been impressed into service that she begins to suspect that not all vampires are evil. Things go rather predictably after that. I'm not a big fan of these good vs bad vampire situations, but this wasn't bad once I got past that hurdle. There were moments of humor, a bit of romance, and some reasonably suspenseful sequences. I'll keep an eye out for the next one. 11/11/07
Midnight Reign by Chris Marie Green, Ace, 2/08, $14, ISBN 978-0-441-01560-3
Midnight Awakening by Lara Adrian, Dell, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58939-8
These two vampire novels, both parts of series, showed up almost simultaneously and the similarity of titles caused me to lump them together even before I'd really looked at them. A call from the blood bank yesterday made me think of vampires, so I read one last night and the other this morning and, I am happy to say, in both of them vampires are nasty, evil creatures, at least for the most part. They both fit my definition of horror, but they're also likely to appeal to fans of urban fantasy, with perhaps a slightly darker cast than usual. One is set in California and one in Boston, but the two books are surprisingly similar. Green's novel is the sequel to Night Rising, in which a stuntwoman looking into her father's death discovers that vampires are real and living in Hollywood. In the sequel, Dawn begins to realize that what she has learned is changing her personality, that the bonds tying her to her old life are beginning to slip away. When she learns of a new death that sounds suspiciously like the work of the undead, she decides to find out the truth. There's a fairly elaborate vampire society emerging in this series, and the vampires aren't entirely traditional either. Tuck that around a fair to middling mystery and you have a pretty good book. I'll be watching for the next in the series.
I come late to the Darkhaven books by Lara Adrian. This is apparently the third with at least one more already announced. He heroine is Elise Chase, who hunts vampires in Boston. There are good vamps and bad ones, and it's the bad ones she's after because they killed someone she loved. She teams up with a typical suave vampire hero and you know there's going to be at least a hint of romance in this one long before the characters are aware of it. This one's not bad either, but it doesn't have the same depth as the first. The dialogue seems too light in tone for the subject matter a lot of the time, the vampires aren't as interesting or as scary, and the setting wasn't quite as vivid. It's not at all a bad book, but given a choice of the two, try the other first. Neither of them is going to knock your socks off for originality but Green's is the more innovative of the pair. 11/9/07
The Remains of the Dead by Wendy Roberts, Obsidian, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22268-8
Here's another one of those novels that's hard to categorize. It's a murder mystery and it involves ghosts, so it's most likely supernatural and technically horror, but it feels more like contemporary fantasy. Lumpers and splitters can argue about it, but I'll stick it here because it's definitely our world, more or less. The protagonist is Sadie Novak, who runs a business that cleans up crime scenes. I vaguely recall seeing a movie or television show with this premise a while back. Anyway, Sadie has another shtick. She can see and talk to the ghosts hovering about the remains of their death, a pretty obvious take from The Ghost Whisperer. Her latest job is a murder to be cleaned up, during the course of which she meets an interesting, handsome looking man who is definitely among the living. But the dead woman's ghost is there as well and she wants Sadie to help her prove that her husband was not the killer. To do that, Sadie has to find out who is really responsible, which puts her in harm's way. This is the first in the "Ghost Dusters" series, a bad choice for a title but not a bad concept. There's a touch of romance as well. Not badly done but a bit bland at times, particularly in the dialogue. I believe this is a first novel so there's a good chance the author will work out some of the kinks for the next one. It's a pretty good cross genre premise, if a rather familiar one. 11/8/07
Crimson Orgy by Austin Williams, Borderlands, 1/08, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-880325-81-0
This is one of those novels that doesn't quite fit into any category. I'm including it here because it feels like a horror novel, even though there are no fantastic elements at all. It bears some resemlance to Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images and Greg Kihn’s Horror Show, just two of several horror novels in which long lost movies figure as major plot elements, but those resemblances are superficial. This first novel by Austin Williams works an entirely different vein of the same general ore field. The story takes us back in time to the early days of gore movies. Blood Feast has just made a very nice profit and small time producers and directors like Sheldon Meyer and Gene Hoffman are hoping to ride the tide with a very low budget shocker filmed in a small Florida town using amateur actors and juryrigged props. Things aren’t going their way, however. Some of the actors are reluctant and their star is an alcoholic who gets arrested after annoying the local police deputy, who also insists on being given a part in the movie. Then there are the minor annoyances, like special effects that don’t work right and a script that needs constant tinkering, to say nothing of an unexpected hurricane.
But there are hints of other problems as well. Why has the starring actress been lied to about the nature of the movie? Why is there a human arm in a box in the producer’s room? Why does one of the actresses succumb to a horrible though apparently accidental death shortly after finishing her part? The tension builds as we move toward the conclusion and we know that something really bad is going to happen. But exactly what, I'm not going to tell you. You'll have to buy a copy of the book to find out. Real good stuff and a fascinating look at the exploitation film industry as well. The prose is so smooth that you'll hardly be aware of it. It's a book that will leave you twitching uncomfortably when you finish. 11/6/07
ErRatic by N.D. Hansen-Hill, Five Star, 2/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-59414-643-5
The author has quite a few previous novels, none of which I've read, and none of which appear to be in the horror genre. The protagonist is a young woman whose life has been repeatedly disrupted by strange events, obviously the effects of supernatural influences. Just as things seem to be going to hell, literally, she finds an unlikely ally in a matter of fact police officer who doesn't believe in the supernatural. At least not until the facts are impossible to deny. Eventually the woman appeals to a psychic investigator and his team to help her, but they're quickly in over their heads as well. The plot isn't bad and the writing is more than tolerable, but this had a sort of distanced, academic feel to it that killed most of the suspense for me. Too much ectoplasm and traveling back and forth from the physical to the metaphysical planes and so forth. I'd be curious to see what the author's other work is like and will be watching for it, but this one needed a bit more emotion in its characters. 11/23/07
The Scary States of America by Michael Teitelbaum, Delacorte, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-385-73331-1
This is, as you might guess from the title, a collection of fifty very short stories for younger readers, each set in a different state, each of which opens with an interesting fact about that state, although it might have been more effective if the facts bore a closer relationship to the stories. Anyway, there are monsters and magic, aliens and legends, and all sorts of combinations of the above. These are toned down to the R.L. Stine Goosebumps level, so they're more often clever and surprising than actually scary. There's a kind of frame, a twelve year old boy who is the narrator. He's a collector of paranormal events, you see. This kind of reminded me of the Eerie, Indiana television series at times. Some of the stories seem rather silly even for twelve year old readers, but it has been a long time since I was twelve, so maybe I'm out of touch. Most were amusing, some definitely clever. It's not something I'd recommend for adults, but if there is a young, budding horror fan in your circle, Teitelbaum is a nice, painless way to ease them into the right groove. 10/17/07
Let Me In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Thomas Dunne, 2007, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-312-35528-9
I shied away from this new vampire novel for a few days because the blurb made it sound like a ripoff of the movie, Fright Night. Swedish writer Lindqvist does, however, make his vampires evil, which is ultimately what jumped this a few notches up the pile of to-be-read books. After several vampire romances, or near romances, I needed some nice, refreshing bloodletting. Well, I didn’t get quite what I was looking for, but it’s a pretty good novel anyway. A teenaged bully is found dead, his body drained of blood, and there are rumors that it was a ritual murder performed by Satanists. The young protagonist, meanwhile, has grown interested in the strange girl who has moved into the neighborhood recently, who seems out of touch with the world despite her sharp wits. Perhaps that’s not the only thing that’s sharp, since she never comes outside during the daylight. I’ll leave the rest of the surprises unrevealed and just tell you that it’s a quite good and often suspenseful novel that doesn’t quite move in the directions you’re expecting. 10/6/07
Dreadful Delineations by John MacLay, Delirium, 11/07, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-88-1
No Further Messages by Brett Alexander Savory, Delirium, 12/07, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-87-4
I’ve been going back and forth between these two collections for a few days now, comparing the two writers as I go along. Although this is a bit of a generalization, I’d characterize most of MacLay’s as extended vignettes, that is, they tend to be quite short and most of them focus on a single image or concept. We don’t see much of the characters’ personalities except in relation to that one bit of fine tuning; there’s not room for anything else. The subject might be an impulsive killing, a sudden epiphany, a bizarre sexual encounter, a twisted joke, and in most cases there isn’t anything supernatural in the story. The human characters are evil, sick, or desperate enough to do horrible things without intervention from beyond. He’s like a quick boxer, jabbing with short little punches, dancing away before we can engage. I find that stories of this type make a nice change of pace when interspersed with more elaborate ones. That means that I find it strategically wrong to lump a lot of them together like this. They are close enough in tone that reading them one after another robs them of much of their individual impact. So read this one in fits and snatches, but don’t settle down to read it straight through.
Brett Savory’s stories are individually much more substantial. They vary from tales of violent crime to the wonderfully morbid humor of “Scenario B” to the sardonic “Apology”. His heroes are madman, murderers, criminals, and people driven to desperate measures. There are a few very short pieces here, but they’re not nearly as good as the longer pieces. Savory’s particular style seems to need more room to run out all of his cannon. The two best stories are “Slipknot” and “Running Beneath the Skin” but the general quality is quite consistent. This one you can read from cover to cover with no interruptions. 10/5/07
The Hollower by Mary SanGiovanni, Leisure, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5974-1
The action starts right away in this first novel with a suicide, a strange manifestation in a little boy's bedroom, and a man stalked by a faceless stranger. If anything, it was a little too abrupt, introducing too many weird things before we have time to get to know the characters. And then things start happening right and left, ghostly appearances, a dead man warning that the Hollower is invulnerable, a woman having a psychotic episode, more sightings at a funeral and elsewhere, and I'm only on page 40. I know that it's important to keep a story moving, but there's too much information coming too quickly in this one, although we still don't know much of anything about the creature's nature or purpose.
I also had some problems with a couple of the characters. The Hollower taunts a woman in a bar, and she goes to the police and provides a very rational explanation, suggesting a burglary. But then, for no apparent reason and despite the fact that she knows it will destroy her credibility, she starts talking about it being in her home, knowing her name, and having no face. In the heat of the moment, I can buy that. Hours later, after giving a calm recital to a sympathetic person, the sudden irrationality jars. The Hollower evolves during the course of the story from a mysterious lurker to a Michael Myers style invulnerable creature that heals wounds almost instantaneously. By then I was struggling to maintain my interest. There are some quite good scenes scattered through the book, but it just doesn't come together, and it has too hectic a pace to be truly suspenseful. 10/4/07
The Watcher by Jeanne C. Stein, Ace, 12/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01546-7
Betrayed by P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast, St Martins, 2007, $8.95, ISBN 978-0-312-36028-3
The Anna Strong series by Jeanne C. Stein has been getting progressively more interesting - this is her third adventure - but I'm still put off by the present tense narration, which robs the story of any real suspense. Strong was attacked by a vampire early on and in this one she is a full fledged Watcher, a kind of police officer for the supernatural, dedicated to preventing the nasty variety from preying on humans or even other supernatural creatures. She has what appears to be a triple case this time. Her boyfriend has mysteriously disappeared, a local witch is intent upon raising a demon, and there's a vampire slaughtering people wholesale. The plot is very good and I've come to like the character, and I would undoubtedly like this even better if it was told in traditional narrative form.
The second title is the second House of Night novel, following Marked. As with The Watcher, it involves a young woman - a teenager this time - who has been converted to vampirism, but is of the good variety. She's staying at a finishing school that specializes in students with her particular kinds of problems and is fitting in well when a series of vampire attacks in the area throws everything up into the air. Teenage angst, romance, adventure, suspense, and other plot elements all come together surprisingly well in this one. It's not breaking any new ground, but it's filling in the old tracks quite well. I'll be looking forward to the third. 10/1/07
House Infernal by Edward Lee, Leisure, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5806-5
Edward Lee has returned to one of his familiar themes for this new novel, in which a woman discovers that the priory where she is working is actually a kind of gateway to Hell. The action starts quite quickly with ghastly dreams and visions of a tormented, bizarre landscape. At first she thinks it is merely a nightmare, but eventually she realizes that she has fallen under the influence of the ultimate evil. There's a secret society, ancient rituals, and plenty of suspense, but as usual the really interesting parts are Lee's depiction of an utterly alien reality, a place where demons exist and people venture unwisely. The close up view of Hell is more intellectually interesting than frightening, and as a result this is not as suspenseful a work as are some of Lee's other novels. Definitely not for the squeamish. 9/28/07
Ugly Heaven, Beautiful Hell by Carlton Mellick III & Jeffrey Thomas, Delirium, 2007, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-86-7
Despite appearances, this is not a collaboration. Rather it is two novellas with roughly similar or at least complementary themes, packaged together. The premise of both is that Heaven is either not what we think it is, or was, but has been changed into something phantasmagoric. Mellick's vision is a chaotic wilderness where perversion and brutality hold sway. It's told in the present tense, which is one strike against it, and it never really grounds itself in reality, which is strike two. Motivations, landscapes, and actions are all so alien that there are no reference points by which to appreciate its strangeness, and the result is strangeness for its own sake. We don't care about the characters, and have little more interest in the plot, which seems at times to seek for cleverness rather than effectiveness. It doesn't quite rate a strike three, but it's only going to appeal to very special tastes.
I expected better from Thomas, and that's what I got, although his Heaven is just as weird. God is in the process of undergoing a physical transformation, which is reflected in all of Heaven. The distinction between angels and demons has become blurred, and a newly arrived soul has considerable trouble making sense of his new environment. All of this told in straightforward, but never dull prose. It's not one of my favorites of his books, and it's a sequel to another I wasn't overly impressed with, Letters of Hades, but it's certainly readable, and some of the twists are quite entertaining. The Thomas is worth the price of the volume alone, so consider the other half an iffy bonus. 9/27/07
Broken Angel by Brian Knight, Delirium, 2007, $$16.95, ISBN 978-1-929643-89-9
I first reviewed this back in 2003, but I re-read it this time because I had since read and enjoyed, Feral, which has some strong plot similarities, although this is a very different story otherwise. The arrival of a strange young girl in town coincides with odd acts of violence, a man killed by a teenager when he attacks another, a dog found lying dead, etc. The girl is temporarily placed with a foster mother. Our protagonist, Grim, has conflicting emotions in the matter, because something about the girl just doesn't seem right, although he finds it impossible to put his fears into words. The authorities suspect that the girl was drugged, and don't connect her to the next death, but we readers know that something very fishy is going on. Yet another murder follows and finally there is some evidence that people are beginning to suspect something very funny is going on. I don't want to spoil the ending so I won't be too specific about what happens in the second half of the book, but there is obviously something supernatural going on that effects the personalities of other people, and it obviously centers on the girl, Angel. The writing's not bad at all, but the early chapters felt a little bit rushed and I have my usual qualms about supernatural powers that can change people's basic personalities in relatively short periods of time. Out and out possession is fine, but instant subversion doesn't work for me. 9/21/07
Blood Is the New Black by Valerie Stivers, Three Rivers, 2007, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-307-35213-2
The heroine of this unusual vampire novel has recently taken a job working for a fashion magazine, whose staff seems unusually clannish and particularly fond of the night life. Yes, this is a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and Dracula, with emphasis on the former and more than a slight bit of tongue in cheek. Most of what follows is predictable, though sometimes cleverly set up. Kate keeps noticing odd things around the office, but it takes her quite a long time to figure out why everyone avoids the sunlight and garlic isn't served in the cafeteria. This was light weight but actually quite a lot of fun, and it could have been a lot better if it hadn't been written in first person present tense. It kind of takes a bite out of the suspense. 9/18/07
The Wheel of Darkness by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Warner, 2007, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-446-58028-1
Preston and Child have written some of my favorite books – particularly Reliquary – and I’ve been following their adventures of FBI agent Pendergast ever since. I had actually thought his story had come to an end with his last outing, in which he finally defeated his brilliant but psychotic brother. He’s back this time, with his enigmatic ward Constance Green in tow, trying to track down a stolen Tibetan artifact whose nature is unknown but which legend says will be the instrument of the destruction of the human race. The twosome join the maiden voyage of the largest ocean liner ever built in pursuit of the man who killed the original thief, and quickly narrow their list of suspects to a handful of people.
But there are other problems including an unpleasant captain who clashes with his senior staff, a mysterious incident involving one of the maids who put out her own eyes, a storm brewing ahead of them, and the disappearance of one of the passengers. As time passes, the list grows narrower still, and another passenger dies, thrown from the ship by an unidentified man, presumably the thief/murderer. Our suspicions are drawn to one of the final three names, the man in whose suite the maid went mad. And then things really start to get weird. And scary. There is some genuine supernatural stuff, murder, and a near disaster before things conclude.
Pendergast is an investigator in the Sherlock Holmes mode, making deductions based on instinct as much as the evidence, and Constance proves to be an able Watson this time around, insinuating herself into the support staff of the ship in order to pursue their inquiries. Although the story is suspenseful throughout, I had a few problems with details. For one thing, at no time during the crisis – which lasts for days – is there any sign of an effort to contact the authorities either back in England or ahead in the US. The senior crew finally relieve the captain of command, but neither side radios to their superiors for an advisement even though there have been several murders aboard until after they have diverted to Newfoundland. It’s also another of those stories where the evil presence radically alters the personality of a character – in this case Pendergast – in a matter of seconds, which even with genuinely supernatural intervention I find difficult to accept. And finally, Pendergast's recovery from his contamination is a deus ex machina. I enjoyed this one a lot, and the closing chapters are quite exciting, but it's a bit contrived. 9/13/07
Restore from Backup by J.F. Gonzalez & Michael Oliveri, Bad Moon Books, 2007, $15, no ISBN
The latest novella from this small press publisher tells the story of a computer technician who takes a new job working for a mysterious company that doesn't seem to do anything except process calculations. A former employee warns him to run for his life and is later shot to death, apparently because the bosses think he might talk, even though their secret operation is actually motivated by good rather than evil. It seems there is an element in nature that causes plagues, and this can only be arrested by a system of alchemists, magic, and number crunching. When our hero accidentally over writes one file in the system, he causes a complete breakdown, panic, collapse, and a virulent new plague. It's a nice core idea and it's well written, but the plot just doesn't live up to the premise. The whole system is clearly too fragile to have lasted many centuries, the methods of maintaining secrecy are too lax and haphazard to have worked for any length of time, and it's never really clear why the ex-employee acted the way he did. It's a nice level swing of the bat, but still a miss. 8/29/07
Graphic Classics: Bram Stoker edited by Tom Pomplun, Eureka, 2007, $11.95, ISBN 978-0-9787919-1-9
This is the second edition, expanded, of this collection of graphic adaptations of works by Bram Stoker. I've enjoyed this series since the first title I read. Each takes a single author and includes a selection of their works, adapted by graphic artists and writers, almost always in radically different styles, sometimes dramatically changing the original effect. Occasionally the adaptations don't work, but most of the time they provide a fresh look at an old story, and the quality of the work in general is almost always topnotch. The opening story, new to this edition, is a necessarily shortened version of Dracula, adapted by Rich Rainey and illustrated by Joe Ollman. It sticks closely to the story and the condensation is well done. I wasn't tremendously impressed with the artwork, which is in a not quite realistic style that rarely works for me.
There's an illustrated guide to vampires following that, cute and well illustrated, followed by an excellent adaptation of "The Judge's House" by Gerry Alanguilan and a nearly as good excerpt from Jewel of the Seven Stars. Onsmith Jeremi has an unusual and interesting adaptation of "The Squaw", and "The Wondrous Child" has the best artwork in the collection, by Evert Geradts. Finally there's a cartoonish version of Lair of the White Worm adapted by Tom Pomplun and illustrated by Rico Schacherl. Graphic work designed to please even those people who don't normally like it. 8/29/07
Fiends of the Rising Sun by David Bishop, Black Flame, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-494-3
There have certainly been a lot of alternate histories of World War II over the years, but none as bizarre as those of David Bishop. Having completed his trilogy of novels, Fiends of the Eastern Front, in which the Axis powers form an alliance with vampires, Bishop turns his attention to the Pacific War, and as it happens that I've recently read a couple of more mainstream alternate histories of the war with Japan, the contrast was perhaps even more evident. The Japanese prime minister is intelligent enough to know that Japan cannot defeat the United States using conventional weapons, so he decides to resort to the most unconventional weapon of them all - the undead.
This is almost certainly the first book in a new series, since it is largely set around the attack on Pearl Harbor, but it reveals aspects of the attack that we never knew before - the mysterious landing of a Japanese plane to discharge a passenger, the existence of special battalions of vampire soldiers training in Taiwan, and the possibility that US soldiers will face an implacable, virtually unkillable enemy who is more interested in drinking their blood than spilling it. A lot of fun, sometimes gruesome, but this felt more like the setup for a larger and - presumably - forthcoming story. 8/28/07
Demon's Kiss by Maggie Shayne, Mira, 12/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7783-2497-3
Lord of the Night by Robin T. Popp, Grand Central, 12/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61785-7
We have here a couple of vampire romances. I've read several previous books by Maggie Shayne so I was not surprised to find this one was pretty good, considerably more complex than most similar ones. Reaper is a vampire and a vampire slayer whose current job is to destroy a group of bad vamps who don't play by the rules. He likes to work alone, but this time he's going to be encumbered by a pack of "helpers", and troubled by conflicting opinions about both his friends and his enemies. Nicely delineated characters help lift this one out of the pack of similar books littering the bookstands nowadays.
I've read at least one previous novel by Robin Popp. It was entertaining but unsurprising, and this one - the fourth in that same series - is about the same. This one is also about a vampire slayer, female this time, and tired of the game. She's just embarking on a new, more conventional, and considerably safer career when she finds herself accused of murdering a vampire, and a good one to boot. The vampire who trained her has mixed feelings, and to no one's surprise, there's romance in the wings - even if they're batwings. Not badly written, but the feeling of deja vu is real strong with this one. 8/23/07
Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer, Little Brown, 2007, $18.99, ISBN 978-0-316-16020-9
Apparently this, the third in the Twilight series, has been an unusually good seller. It's certainly a quite readable book - significantly better than its two predecessors, but I wonder if this is at least in part the result of Harry Potter fans, slightly older now on average, looking for another series to latch on to now that Harry has had his last bow. Meyer is tapping into some of the same material that made Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake books so popular - a mix of romance and the supernatural, a hidden society of werewolves and vampires living hidden within our world, and feuding with one another. A feisty female protagonist who walks a careful line between worlds. It's also quite long for a young adult novel, over six hundred pages. This may be a case of being at the right place with the right book at the right time.
Which does not mean that Meyer isn't good at what she does. Her characters are better drawn than in most similar work, although they still didn't really come alive for me. The plot is nicely constructed and well executed, with a malevolent vampire slaughtering people in the background while Bella, the protagonist, finds herself trapped between two worlds, three in fact, and has to balance love against friendship, loyalty against passion. I'd strongly recommend reading New Moon and Twilight first, because you'll understand the tensions better that way, but you can read this one alone. Her imaginary world is familiar enough that you should be able to slip right into it. 8/18/07
Crashing Paradise by Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski, Ace, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-015332-0
Book four of the Menageries series is decidedly strange, and I was tempted to review it in the Fantasy rather than Horror sections, although to be consistent I left it here. The series involves a kind of Legion of Supernatural Heroes, gathered by a brilliant man named Conan Doyle, to protect humanity from their evil counterparts. This installment has a really unusual character, Eve from the Garden of Eden, who has been taken captive by the Legion of Doom and who is being used by then to enter the alternate dimension where the Garden still exists. If it is corrupted, the entire multiverse may be in jeopardy. The race is on for the Tree of Knowledge and the fate of humanity lies in the balance. There really isn't any doubt about the outcome, and the story is more of an adventure thriller than a story of horror, but it's a lot of fun and it certainly isn't just a rehash of six other paperback originals you read this month. Try it, you'll like it. 8/18/07
Hunting the Demon by Jaci Burton, Dell, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-440-24336-6
It's hot and muggy again today, so I was looking for something not too demanding. I enjoyed the last book I read by this author, Surviving Demon Island, so this looked like a safe bet. The protagonist - female - is a professional demon hunter, sort of a Buffy the Demon Slayer with a bit more sex. Her latest quarry might be one of the good variety of demons, but his personal habits are probably irrelevant given the fact that he's caught in the middle of a battle between good and evil. You won't be surprised to find out that the two eventually overcome their instinctive antagonist and become a team, and then set about outwitting their mutual enemies, while managing to fit a little romance in. I didn't think this was quite up to the standard of her last novel, but it certainly wasn't bad. Nic is hardly what I'd think of as a demon, but then the demons in Buffy and Angel weren't very demonic either. Pleasant hot weather reading. 8/13/07
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron, Night Shade, 2007, $
I had read most of the stories in this collection previously, but I think they have more of an impact collectively than individually. I was struggling to find a point of comparison and the closest I can come up with is Robert Aickman, with a twist toward the surreal. This is also one of those collections that are hard to classify because although most of them involve something horrible happening, they aren't traditional horror and often they feel more magical than supernatural. I suppose dark fantasy is the closest approximation. The opening story, "Old Virginia", is about a government project to study a remote viewer that goes wrong, because Virginia really isn't just a remote viewer. She's much more dangerous than that. I thought the ending was just a bit rushed, but otherwise it's a fine story. So is "Shiva, Open Your Eye", although it's probably the weakest in the collection.
"The Procession of the Black Sloth" is an original novelette, and a decidedly creepy one. The protagonist is an industrial counterspy whose latest case gets off to a bad start when he sees something weird on an airplane, and which rapidly gets stranger as he proceeds. The title refers to a quasi-feminist group, a society of older women who are supposedly protesting against man's cruelty to woman through the ages. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Really liked this one. "Bulldozer" is a weird western about a Pinkerton man tracking down an ex-circus performer who stole the proverbial "book of evil" from P.T. Barnum. It's one of my favorites in the collection. "Proboscis" is an eerie extrapolation of the assassin beetle into human society.
"Hallucigenia" starts with a nicely creepy scene. A couple and their chauffeur are temporarily stranded on a remote road by a fault in their car, and the twosome wander off to explore a barn. Inside they find indications of satanism, including what they believe to be a dead horse. The horse proves to be very much alive, injuring both of them severely before the chauffeur shoots it. Although the police don't suspect any specific foul play, the mysterious disappearance of the dead horse makes them wonder. Very good story, though I thought it was a bit too drawn out toward the end. "Parallax" and "The Royal Zoo Is Open" are entertaining, but comparatively minor, leading up to the best story in the collection, "The Imago Sequence". A very impressive array of stories from a distinctive talent. Note that the more expensive limited edition contains one additional story. 8/5/07
The Bleeding Season by Greg Gifune, Delirium, 2007, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-77-5
The horror genre has traditionally been very conservative about experimentation. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t gifted stylists exploring the ways that horror can become a more artistic form; William Browning Spencer and Thomas Ligotti are two prime examples. But for the most part, genre horror fiction still involves the classic elements – vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, demonic possession, haunted or bad places, nature gone wild, and the like. Sometimes novelty in the plot of a new work will make it stand out just because it’s different, even if it isn’t necessarily well written. When a novel is both original in concept and extremely well written, there is cause for rejoicing.
I first read this back in 2003 when the limited edition came out, but my memories of it were sufficiently positive that I thought it was time to look at it again. The narrator, Alan, is one of five childhood friends whose lives have all gone awry. The first was struck by a car and killed as he left a school bus. Bernard never left home until his mother died, lost his job, and the opening chapter brings news that he has hanged himself. Donald and Rick have low paying jobs and no future; Rick served time for assault and battery. Alan’s marriage is going through a rocky period, and money is tight. They are all shocked by Bernard’s death, but that’s just the beginning. They discover that Bernard’s stint in the Marines is a lie, and they have no idea where he actually was during that part of his life. Alan and Donald both have dramatically similar dreams of Bernard visiting them to say his last farewell before being carried off to Hell. Although Alan’s wife dismisses this as coincidence, the two of them – and the reader – know that the experience is significant.
Alan begins to have bizarre hallucinations, if that’s what they are, including some of the creepier scenes I’ve read. Then a tape recording from Bernard arrives, his suicide note, telling them that he is a serial killer. They aren’t sure that they believe it until the spring thaw begins to reveal bodies, and even then they are reluctant to turn over the tape to the authorities, because it might involve them. The three survivors are haunted by ghosts of their friend’s victims, and then by an even more substantial danger. Atmospheric, suspenseful, and creepy. Nice to see this in a popularly priced edition. 8/1/07
Immortal Remains by Steve Niles & Jeff Mariotte, Pocket Star, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7434-9652-0
It's hot and humid so I wanted something comparatively light weight after a large dose of Albert Camus last night. I was also rather disappointed in a new horror film I'd been looking forward to, so I was in the mood for something creepy. Pocket Star attempted to fill this gap by providing two new tie-in horror novels in the mail, so I jumped them to the top of the stack, turned up the fan, and got comfy. This first one is the latest in the "30 Days of Night" series of supernatural thrillers, based on what was originally a set of graphic novels. The opening chapters suggest that there is a particularly brutal serial killer on the loose, but the truth is naturally much worse than that.
Yes, there are vampires in the world. This installment in the series even ponders the possible outcome of a vampire-human pregnancy. Shades of Blood. I actually enjoyed the opening chapters a lot less than the rest of the book. Once the vampires are out in the open, they're considerably less interesting, and even though the author makes good use of the setting he's been giving, there's nothing here to distinguish the book from all of the rest about vampire clans and power struggles and the like. A nice dark adventure story but not as suspenseful as it should have been. 7/29/07
Extinction by Keith R.A. DeCandido, Pocket Star, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-4498-2
I'll start by saving that for the most part I don't like zombie movies or zombie stories. Like werewolves, they've been done to death and there wasn't a whole lot of variation in them in the first place. I'm talking about George Romero style zombies, of course, which are really just stupid vampires. They eat flesh instead of blood, and they can come out in the day time, but essentially they're just replicating themselves in their victims. Authentic zombie stories, like those written by Hugh Cave, are a different thing entirely and can be much better. That said, I found the first Resident Evil movie reasonably entertaining, the sequel less so. I haven't played the computer game at all, and have never felt particularly tempted.
That said, the earlier tie-in novels by S.D. Perry, keyed to the first movie, were pretty good, but rapidly became repetitive. This is, I think, the first tie-in involving the second film, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and veteran tie-in novelist KeithR.A. DeCandido, has taken over. The two protagonists of that film are now on the run, accompanying a small group of humans. Their goal is Alaska, which offers the promise of at least a lower population of the undead, but to get there they'll have to defeat wandering bands of zombies, and the machinations of the mysterious and evil Umbrella Corporation. There's a mini-climax, but the story really doesn't end with this book, so you might want to wait for the rest of the story to appear. 7/29/07
Over the Darkening Fields by Scott Thomas, Dark Regions, 2007, $16.95, ISBN 978-1888993509
I'm including this one in horror fiction because the stories lean predominantly toward the supernatural, but there's fantasy here as well, and some that fall between genres. What isn't to be found in this collection is any bad stories, and while some impressed me more than others, the quality that stood out the most is the originality of the concepts. Thomas takes familiar devices and gives them a quarter turn in odd directions. The stories also cover a pretty wide range of topics, everything from Jack the Ripper to bizarre cultures of the distant past to animated dolls and hidden rooms. There's a recurring theme of fascination with the past. The stories have both upbeat and downbeat endings, and you're not always going to be able to predict which one is coming. The language is clear and crisp, and even relatively complex plots are rendered accessible. A few of the stories are quite ambitious, others are simply good tales well told. None of these stories appeared in major magazines or anthologies, so they should be new to most readers. And their relative obscurity is not a question of quality, but rather a lack of a strong market for stories of this nature. "The Storm Horses", "The September Fair", and "The Crippled Gate" are all particularly good ones. 7/11/07
Tales from the Crypt #1, Papercutz, 2007
I'm really surprised that it has taken this long for someone to revive Tales from the Crypt comic books. Although this is updated somewhat, with less representational art, brighter colors, and a more contemporary story line, there is very much of the original flavor to this opening issue. The Crypt Keeper is back, along with the Vault Keeper and the Old Witch, to introduce the individual stories, two of them in this case. The 1950s horror comics were killed by the misinformed comics code because it was believed that they were injurious to the moral or mental health of kids. In fact, they were subversive in a way that we didn't understand at the time. Superhero comics and the talking animals of Disney and Warner Brothers were all nice and clean, the panels filled with crisp colors, straight lines, machinery and antiseptic looking rooms and streets. The horror comics were dark and fuzzy, and sometimes the good people weren't so good after all, and sometimes even when they were, they didn't win at the end. As kids, we couldn't talk about it in just those terms, but even though no one ever said anything to me about them, I always kept Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror hidden away, buried under Superman and Batman and Donald Duck.
Like I said, there are two stories in the premiere revival issue. In the first one, a man and wife conspire to steal the paintings created by their artist neighbor, which he paints in a cemetery after dark and which feature gruesome corpses. They are discovered and kill the artist, and meet their wonderfully predictable fate at the hands of the originals of the paintings. The second, and better story, is about a young man obsessed with action figures who steals money to buy a new, imported monster figure, but who fails to read the fine print on the box. His new prize destroys much of his collection, turning them into monsters themselves, and that leads to the inevitable conclusion. My recollection of the original comics is that most of the victims deserved what they got, and that's true of both of these. I hope this new incarnation has a longer life than the original. 7/11/07
Tell No Tales by Christine Morgan, Sablehouse, 2007, $15.95, ISBN 0-9771005-3-7
I've read three previous horror novels by Christine Morgan, and this is easily her best. The setting is a remote island where an elaborate reality show is being staged, with a pirate theme and a group of disparate contestants competing in physical and mental challenges, conspiring to eliminate one another by votes in what is clearly meant to be an imitation of Survivor. To support this effort, the production company has built an entire town on the island, designed to replicate Tortuga, the pirate haven, but the Hollywood version rather than the reality. The problem is that the cursed island really is cursed, in the form of a mysterious figure who tries to drive off the intruders through the use of a low level poison and various pranks, but who eventually graduates to drowning children and beheading adults.
At first it seems that the killer might just be a madman, but eventually we discover that he is the original pirate whose curse supposedly hangs over the island. He and his ghostly crew are soon providing enough carnage for an R-Rated film, let alone television. I'm a sucker for stories with pirates in it, and this has a nice, nasty crew and plenty of murder and mayhem. Great fun for a hot day. 7/11/07
Dead Man's Song by Jonathan Maberry, Pinnacle, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7860-1816-1
This is the sequel to Ghost Road Blues, which one the Bram Stoker award as best first novel. There is apparently a final book in the series, Bad Moon Rising, on its way. The setting is Pine Bluff, Pennsylvania, a small town which, in the first book, we learned that an earlier serial killer - The Reaper - was killed but whose spirit has lingered behind to influence others in "the most haunted town in America". Even though history repeated itself and the new murderer is dead, the horrible killings are continuing. In fact, the evil influence seems to be spreading rapidly throughout the population.
There's more creepiness and violence this time around, and the situation is clearly spiraling out of control. Whatever the source of the problem might be, it's growing stronger, and now it's up to the protagonists to discover and neutralize that dark power before it destroys the town entirely. As you'd expect, there's some very good writing here, and several sequences of genuinely creepy. My reservations are mostly those you'd expect of the middle volume in a trilogy. There's a feeling of incompleteness, obviously, and while Maberry provides us with an immediate climax, its effect is diminished by knowing that has to be another and even more momentous battle to come. There were also a few times when I thought the narrative strayed a bit from its central focus, but these were all short diversions and didn't materially affect my enjoyment of the book. Definitely a keeper, but you might want to wait until we have the rest of the story before reading it. 7/10/07
Bloodline by F. Paul Wilson, Forge, 10/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1706-3
Repairman Jack is back from his eleventh (I think) adventure. This one had a limited edition from Gauntlet Press - which is shown in the graphic since I couldn't find one for the Forge edition. Jack is still pretty much a basket case after the loss of his unborn child and hasn't been working much, but finally he's stirring around, taking on a few jobs to occupy his mind. One of those jobs is to investigate a suave, fast talking man whose romance with an unattractive older teenager strikes the latter's mother as more than slightly strange. You don't have to be familiar with Jack's previous cases to know well in advance that the lover is not at all what he appears to be, but you'll enjoy the torturous path Jack follows to discover the truth.
In the background, of course, there are lots of other plots brewing. There's a disappearing book of magic, a self help organization that strongly resembles a cult, and the ever threatening menace or Rasolam, the supernatural force which has battled Jack several times in the past. Wilson has almost always used multiple plot lines in this series, but I think this is probably the most complex plot he's tried to date, although he moves among the separate story lines so smoothly that you may not realize just how dense (in a good way) the story is until you've finished. It is also one of the most violent in the series, and suggests that the conflict with Rasolam is beginning to accelerate toward its conclusion. 7/9/07
The Haunted Pampero by William Hope Hodgson, Donald Grant, 1991
This is another cross collection of Hodgson’s short fiction, accompanied by a very long essay by Sam Moskowitz. The title story I covered in an earlier collection below, and the same is true of most of the remaining stories - “The Valley of Lost Children”, “Goddess of Death” and “The Wild Man of the Sea”. “The House Among the Laurels” is here as well, as “Carnacki, the Ghost Finder”. One of the stories included is “The Silent Ship” (aka “The Phantom Ship”), which was the original ending of Hodgson’s novel, The Ghost Pirates.
“The Ghosts of the Glen Doon” is a rationalized ghost story. The ship of the title capsized, killing much of its crew, and after it is set afloat, it is left to rust with stories of strange noises keeping people away. A rich young man takes a bet to spend the night there and disappears, after which a massive investigation is undertaken, eventually revealing a secret compartment used by counterfeiters. Not very convincing. “A Timely Escape” (which was originally to be called “Brain Vampire”) is about a man using a trance state to steal thoughts from another, and it’s one of Hodgson’s least successful works. “Bullion” is a mystery set at sea, leading the reader to believe it’s supernatural, but with a rationalized ending. “Old Golly” is simply a descriptive sketch of life at sea. The familiar stories in this collection are worthwhile, but are all available elsewhere. The rarities included are of minor interest, however, Moskowitz’s essay and introductions are quite informative. 7/4/07
Terrors of the Sea by William Hope Hodgson, Donald Grant, 1996
Like The Haunted Pampero collection, this opens with a lengthy essay by Sam Moskowitz and includes introductions to the individual stories. Two of these I’ve covered elsewhere below, “Demons of the Sea” and “The Island of Crossbones”. "The Sharks of the St. Elmo" opens with a sailing vessel discovering that they are being followed by a veritable army of sharks, numbering at least a thousand. It's another of Hodgson's stories suggesting that we only understand a small fraction of the ocean's potential, that it conceals secrets that would terrify us if we knew. They're becalmed for weeks, the sharks stay with them, and the captain and first mate are both hopelessly drunk most of the time. A nice build up but a terrible ending involving drugged Asian men in barrels. "Captain Dang" is a long fragment of an unfinished story.
"The Heathen's Revenge" is an atypical story. A battle between an Asian priest and a belligerent Englishman leads to the kidnapping of his fiance. "The Promise" is a very short piece of little interest. A young boy is driven temporarily mad by something frightening in his new bedroom in "The Room of Fear", a somewhat better story, though still not among Hodgson's better work. Nor if "The Riven Night" in which a ship encounters mysterious phenomena. "R.M.S. Empress of Australia" is an account of a terrible earthquake that destroys entire cities in Japan, cast in the form of a ship's log. Not much of a story, but the observations are interesting, and this is the closest Hodgson ever came to writing science fiction. He's usually at his best describing unusual landscapes and this is evidence of it. "The Plans of the Reefing Biplane" is part of a series about Captain Gault, a smuggler, and has no fantastic content to speak of. It's fairly good, but not particularly memorable. The balance of the book consists of some short vignettes. Although it was nice to get access to many obscure Hodgson stories, as a whole this collection includes mostly his lesser work. 7/4/07
The Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson, Ash-Tree, 2003 (originally published in 1909)
This is Hodgson's suspenseful novel of a ship that serves a gateway between our reality and an alternate one, allowing the wraithlike creatures of the other world to enter and influence our own. All but one member of the crew left the ship after its last voyage, even forfeiting their pay, so none of the new officers and crew know much about the history of the vessel. The one holdover, Williams, says a few things to the narrator, but when Williams dies in a mysterious fall from the mast, that source of information is silenced forever. Hodgson introduces his horrors more quietly and gradually this time. At first there are just unusual sightings of translucent figures, then the sails come unfurled even during a calm, and then the accidents and deaths begin. Then, following a brief period in a mysterious mist, the narrator realizes that while other ships can see them, the unaffected craft are invisible to those aboard. More incidents follow, resulting in another fatal fall and a third crewman left in the throes of madness.
The officers finally concur that there is something supernatural going on and try to take steps to secure the ship after two more men are loss. But if they can't see the ships around them, then presumably they can't see the land either, so how to they put it to a safe port? The story moves inexorably toward its conclusion. Creepy, filled with Hodgson's usual brilliant evocative scenes, and certainly one of the classic novels of the supernatural. 7/4/07
Adrift on the Haunted Seas by William Hope Hodgson, Cold Spring, 2005
All selections of the "best stories" of an author are subject to personal judgments, but this volume certainly comes pretty close to consensus. The stories themselves are interspersed with some of Hodgson's non-fiction and a sampling of his poetry, and most of the entries in all three categories are related to the sea, which featured in the overwhelming majority of his work. The first story is "The Voice in the Night", almost universally accepted as Hodgson's best short story. A ship's crew encounters an unusual island where shipwrecked mariners have slowly been infected with an overcome by a parasitic fungus that changes them into misshapen monsters. The mediocre Japanese horror film, Attack of the Mushroom People, is a not very close adaptation. "Out of the Storm" is an evocative vignette about weathering a storm. "The Voice in the Dawn" is another of Hodgson's stories of the Sargasso Sea, a floating island of seaweed that drifts around the Atlantic, trapping ships, harboring unusual forms of life. The sailors investigate a mysterious sound that could be a human voice, but are forced to sail on without every discovering its source.
"The Haunted Jarvee" is a Carnacki story, review below. Other cross collected stories - all of them good, are "The Haunted Pampero", "Demons of the Sea", "The Derelict", "The Finding of the Graiken", and "A Tropical Horror". "From the Tideless Sea" is a longish, two part return to the Sargasso Sea. A disabled ship becomes trapped in the weeds, and most of the survivors of the original storm succumb in short order to the attentions of a giant octopus. The last two survivors, a man and a woman, are married and have a child, but they calculate that their provisions will only last seventeen years, while almost twice that time has passed before the message they cast adrift in a barrel is found. In part two, they beat off an attack by a giant crab. In "The Wild Man of the Sea", a competent but taciturn sailor comes to be viewed by his shipmates as a Jonah following a run of bad luck. They eventually murder him. "An Adventure of the Deep Waters" is another story of an attack by a giant squid on a passing vessel, quite well done. "The Mystery of the Derelict" suggests something similar, but this time the danger comes from a horde of ravenous rats.
"The Stone Ship" is rather an oddity. Another ship's crew finds a derelict, but this one seems to have been turned entirely to stone. There are brief glimpses of a red haired creature which might have been Medusa, although we later discover the calcification process was caused by deep sea creatures. The final story, "The Shamrazen Homeward Bounder" is about a ship whose entire crew is elderly, and who sail into paradise. There's quite a bit of repetition if you read a large chunk of Hodgson at once, and his antiquated style may be difficult for some, but these are all good stories, and some are classics. 7/3/07
The Boats of the Glen Carrig by William Hope Hodgson, Ballantine, 1971
This strange novel of a group of shipwrecked sailors on an unknown island has been one of my favorites every since I first read it some thirty years ago. Two boatloads from the Glen Carrig find a flattish island covered with odd looking vegetation. Despite cries and growls in the night, their desperation for food and water compels them to investigate further, and eventually they discover a derelict ship with some provisions still aboard, as well as notes written by a woman passenger describing strange visitations while they attempted to survive the disabling of their own ship. Shortly thereafter, they find themselves under siege in the cabin, attacked by a powerful but unseen creature which, fortunately, absents itself when the sun comes up. They explore only a limited distance and find a spring of fresh water, with which they reprovision their boats, preparatory to leaving the island. During this expedition, they examine some of the strange trees and discover what appear to be human figures absorbed into the pulpy bark. Horrified, they flee the island, but almost as soon as the boats are clear, they see indications of a major storm brewing.
They survive the storm, the recounting of which is some of Hodgson's best work. After it subsides, they find themselves permanently separated from the second boat, and travel alongside immense shoals of seaweed, home to giant crabs, squids, and other creatures. Eventually they find another deserted island, this one partially covered by giant fungus. The series of wrecks they pass mired in the seaweed continues here as well and after losing one of their number to mysterious creatures living on the island, they spot what appears to be a light from one of the hulks. Much of the rest of the novel consists of efforts to join the two parties, specifically to rescue those stranded on the boat, interspersed with more weird sounds in the night. Dennis Wheatley's Uncharted Seas (filmed as The Lost Continent) is undoubtedly heavily inspired by this and other, shorter pieces by Hodgson concerning the Sargasso Sea. As is the case with much of Hodgson's work, there is little effort made to flesh in the characters, in fact, most of them are never even named. The focus is on the weird situation in which they find themselves and Hodgson's greatest strength is in imagining and bringing to life bizarre landscapes and situations. 7/3/07
Out of the Storm by William Hope Hodgson, Centaur, 1975
This is another collection of Hodgson’s short stories, again with a strong bias toward stories of the sea. It opens with “A Tropical Horror”, a scary little piece that would have been effective if it hadn’t started and ended so abruptly. A merchant ship is boarded by a sea serpent that lays siege to the crew, picking them off one by one. “Out of the Storm” is the testament of a man caught in a storm at sea, who thinks of the ocean first as a living creature, then as greater than God. “The Finding of the Graiken” is noticeably similar to “The Bells of the Laughing Sally”. A ship has failed to reach port, aboard which is, or at least was, the fiancé of one of the protagonists, having gone on a voyage for reasons of health. The story diverges quickly, but the plot is less than credible. Somehow the bereaved friend, obviously insane, convinces the crew to mutiny and put him in charge. Then he announces that his lover’s ship was lost in the Sargasso Sea, a backwater full of weeds so high they seem like islands. Then he convinces the crew to voyage there, and even knows the right compass setting. Most of this takes place offstage, so Hodgson avoids the necessity of providing any details. The descriptions of their efforts to rescue the other party, battling giant octopuses to do so, is very effective, but the resolution is terrible. They seem to win out by happenstance, the crazed man falls into a stupor, unable to remember later anything that he has done.
"Eloi Eloi Lama Sabacthani" is a really terrible story that should never have been reprinted. A scientist discovers that in moments of great stress, humans emit a force that causes interference with light, hence darkening the area. He experiments on himself and ends up channeling Jesus. Atrocious in every way. "The Terror of the Water Tank" is cast as a mystery. The narrator's prospective father in law is found murdered near a water tank and, a short time later, the policeman guarding the crime scene is strangled. Although the area is surrounded by mud, there are no tracks indicating the escape route of the assailant. It's a locked water tank mystery! The culprit is apparently caught but at the last minute we discover it's a mutant snake. Not as bad as it sounds, but certainly no prize for this one. In "The Albatross", the only person left alive on a half sunken ship ties a message to an albatross, which is subsequently captured by another ship. Unfortunately they are becalmed and doubtful whether they can reach the survivor before her provisions are exhausted. The narrator sets out in a small boat and eventually rescues her, but not before battling a ship full of rats. The last story in the collection is "The Haunting of the Lady Shannon", a marginally interesting story of a mysterious murder aboard a troubled ship. An unbalanced mix of some of Hodgson's better and lesser stories. Stephen Fabian's illustrations for this edition are exceptionally good. 7/2/07
Carnacki the Ghost-Finder by William Hope Hodgson, Panther, 1973 (originally published in 1910)
Carnacki was Hodgson's occult detective, sometimes encountering the supernatural, sometimes exposing charlatans or finding rational explanations for very odd circumstances. This isn't complete, but it includes the best of the series, "The Horse of the Invisible". It opens, however, with "The Thing Invisible", wherein Carnacki is investigating a dagger supposedly used by ghosts to attack anyone who poses a risk to the family. He spends a night in the chapel where the dagger is housed and ultimately uncovers a clever, mechanical device which was responsible for the apparently random attack on the family butler. The elderly head of the family is deemed mentally unstable. It's not a bad story, although Carnacki's very atmospheric night at the crime scene goes on a bit too long. "The Gateway of the Monster" has a very similar set up, a locked door that opens inexplicably and a sleeping chamber that is disturbed at night, but the outcome is very different. This time it is a genuine supernatural visitant, whom Carnacki manages to permanent drive back to the spiritual plane.
In "The House Among the Laurels", Carnacki exposes another haunted house as a fraud, with secret passages explaining most of the mystery. "The Whistling Room" is another one with a genuine supernatural presence, whose dire intent Carnacki averts. There's also a real ghost in "The Searcher of the End House", but she can only be seen when her victims are already afraid. In "The Horse of the Invisible", the best of the lot, he investigates a family curse that only befalls first born female children who are about to be married. The previous deaths, though usually resulting from suicide or natural causes, were associated with unexplained sounds of neighing and thundering hooves. Although our hero explains most of it as trickery by a frustrated lover, there is enough ambiguity to leave the reader uncertain exactly what happened after all.
There's a ship that acts as a magnet for psychic forces in "The Haunted Jarvee" and a rather mundane forgery scheme in "The Find". The longish "The Hog" is probably the least worthwhile, a convoluted tale explaining the link between dreams and psychic forces. A few of these stories are pretty good, but at least half are mediocre to poor. They also fare less well when read as a unit than they did when I first read most of them separately over the course of years. 7/2/07
Demons of the Sea by William Hope Hodgson, Necronomicon Press, 1992
Since Hodgson is the author of the day at Readercon this year, I've been re-reading a lot of his fiction in preparation. Although most of his work appears to be in print, the majority is in high priced collectors' editions. This was a pamphlet collected seven of his rediscovered works plus a few essays. The title story is the best in the collection, one of his many works which combined horror with the sea. Technically it is science fiction as well as horror, since the creatures stirred up by an undersea earthquake are entirely natural, though repulsive. They overwhelm the crew of one ship and attack another before disappearing back where they came. "The Goddess of Death" takes us to a town where several deaths have occurred, and where most believe that a local statue becomes animate at night in order to kill people. Although exciting, there are problems with the story. Why, if the people believed the statue responsible, did they not destroy it during the daylight? Why was no connection made between the recent stranglings and the death of the statue's original owner in the same fashion months earlier? When they finally act, setting out to pound the statue to dust, they discover that it has decamped. The explanation, involved a high priest of Kali who has secretly been living in a chamber beneath the statue is pretty bad. "The Valley of Lost Children" is really minor, the story of grieving parents who are afforded a glimpse of the afterlife, told in thick dialect.
"The Haunted Pompero" is much better. A young man is appointed captain of the Pompero and accepts despite the opposition of his wife, who has heard stories that the ship is cursed. She insists upon accompanying him on the voyage and he agrees, with misgivings. At first things go well, but then an accident results in a fatality. A shipwrecked sailor is taken aboard, but he seems a bit odd. Then the pigs carried in the hold are attacked by an unseen creature leaving wounds resembling those of a shark bite. More appearances follow, during the course of which the captain fires at the mysterious intruder, which leaves behind patches of blood, suggesting a mortal rather than supernatural explanation. The ending is a bit disappointing; the rescued sailor is not what he seems, but it's one of Hodgson's best blends of the sea and the supernatural. "The Painted Lady" is a rather talky piece about an attempt to smuggle the real Mona Lisa into the US, and "The Storm" is a very brief vignette about a storm at sea, with no plot at all. The last of the stories is "The Bells of the Laughing Sally". It's another sea story, marred slightly by a protracted opening that could have been condensed considerably, in which we learn of a young woman who disappeared when the ship she was traveling on went missing. Some time later, the wreck is found near an island, a wreck whose bell sounds mysteriously at times, even though the island is deserted with no suggestion of any survivors. The essays are only mildly interesting, a speculation about the future nature of the common soldier, a diatribe against conditions in the merchant marine, and an article about being in a storm at sea. All of the contents were first published between 1904 and 1923. 7/1/07
The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, Ace, reprint of the 1907 edition.
There have been at least a half dozen editions of this short novel over the years, but the Ace edition was the first I ever read. The narrator and a friend have traveled on vacation to a part of Ireland so remote that the local river appears on no maps and doesn’t appear to have a name, and the local villagers don’t speak English. They spend several days fishing and exploring, eventually stumbling upon a hidden valley which bears indications of once having been under intelligent cultivation. They find ruins shortly afterward, a scene which Hodgson describes beautifully, and salvage an old journal before deciding that they don’t like the area. They return to their camp to read the journal, and thus is the framing story ended.
The diarist had purchased and was living in a large house that had stood empty for many years, and which is presumably the original of the ruins previously visited. After many years of residence, during which he sensed something strange about his surroundings, he is transported either physically or psychically to a vast arena, wherein sits a replica of his house, and whereabouts are arrayed monstrous creatures, one of which reminds him of Kali, the goddess of death, Set, and many other gods of the past, although whether they are statues or living creatures in a state of suspension he is unable to determine. Then a figure half human, half pig, appears and races toward him, but he is lifted into the sky and the scene below disappears in the mist. This sense that humanity is insignificant on the cosmic scale of things is probably one of the reasons why this was numbered among H.P. Lovecraft's favorite stories.
The involuntary journey to that greater realm has consequences, because the house is a passageway of sorts between the universes. The pig creatures, formerly unable to pass through, have now found a way and their scouts are sighted in the vicinity of the narrator's home and proceed to lay siege. The battle that follows, though generally low key, is one of the strongest images I have ever retained from fiction, vividly described and suspenseful. The narrator's sister, apparently driven mad or perhaps under the influence of unseen powers, attempts to unlock one of the doors and must be confined thenceforth. The bodies of those he kills in the dark are mysteriously absent when the sun comes up.
Later, after the creatures seem to have gone, there's a nightmarish exploration of a bottomless chasm that has opened near the house. The manuscript is supposedly damaged so there is only passing mention of a mysterious woman with whom he falls in love, whose nature is never explained. The sequence where he watches the Earth and then the solar system age as they approach the center of the universe is poetic and very effective, but his return to normal time and his reunion with his lover are both murky. It's a very strange book, and one of the most memorable in the field. 7/1/07
Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, Bantam, 9/07, $25, ISBN 978-0-553-80471-3
I assume that Golden is primarily responsible for the text in this profusely illustrated historical horror novel, although one can never tell with collaborations. Mignola is credited with the illustrations, most of which are okay but which contribute very little to the story. The title refers to Captain Henry Baltimore, a soldier during World War I who is seriously wounded and left for dead following one of those suicidal frontal assaults from one set of trenches to another. Baltimore wakens in the aftermath, his leg shattered, surrounded by corpses, and sees winged, batlike creatures preying on the corpses. When one of them attacks Baltimore, he uses a saber to severely wound it and drive it off, but not before it causes nearly instant gangrene in the wounded leg and unleashes a plague that will prove to be even more devastating than the war itself. The balance of the story is set after he has more or less recovered from his wounds, in a bizarre alternate 1920s Europe.
Baltimore summons a group of men to help him battle the evil that he has inadvertently set loose, and the bulk of the novel consists of their violent quest to track down the vampires. The confrontation confirms a minor cavil I had from the outset. Why would this simple act of self preservation on the part of a nearly helpless victim have led to a virtual war between the living and the undead. It seems disproportionate, even for a vampire, and it also seems unlikely that this would be the only case where a fallen but still living man attempted to defend himself. That point aside, I enjoyed the rather larger than life nature of the characters and the conflict, and I welcome a truly evil vampire rather than a reformed, reluctant, or angst ridden one. 6/29/07
Morbid Curiosity by Deborah LeBlanc, Leisure, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5828-6
It's too hot to do anything more active than reading, so I'm catching up on a few that I had moved into the tentative pile. I've read three previous books by this author, all standard horror themes that were entertaining but which I had already largely forgotten within a week. A House Divided was the best of these. I've been waiting to see if she'd strike out into new territory, but this new one isn't going to be a breakout novel either. It reads very much like young adult horror, in fact. The premise is that a relatively unpopular high school girl is given a chance to break into the In Crowd, but only if she performs certain odd rituals. Obviously none of them have watched any horror movies or they would have known that there is always a price to pay. Always. The supernatural entities which they summon are not going to passively fulfill their fondest desires and not exact some penance, preferably some bloody penance. The consequences unfold in due course, there's lots of hand wringing and running around and trying to figure out how to salvage things. Not badly written at all, of course, and I enjoyed it while I was on the ride, but there's nothing really to distinguish it from several dozen similar novels I've read during the past few years. Good title though. 6/28/07
Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead, RazorBill, 9/07, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-59514-174-3
Birth of the Pack by Petru Popescu, Tor, 9/07, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1641-7
Horror fiction may have declined in the adult genre, fleeing to paranormal romance, dark fantasy, and thrillers, but it is still doing well in the young adult market, as evidenced by these two new titles. My only complaint is that neither of them moves away from standard horror themes, but I suppose it's inevitable that publishers consider young adult fiction as even more conservative than adult fiction. These two, as you might gather from their respective titles, are about vampires and werewolves. Part of the good news is that both of them are reasonably inventive and both, particularly the first, are written well enough for more advanced readers. Mead, who has had a previous horror novel that I've never seen, has created a surprisingly diverse world of the undead, with dhampirs, strigoi, and other varieties of vampire, each with its own particular rules of behavior. One of the young characters is a vampire princess, but of a variety that lives a normal lifespan. She is targeted by another group - the undying ones - who wish to destroy her and promote their own dominance of the hidden underworld. She and a friend played truant for a couple of years, but they've been caught and returned to the hidden school where they are supposed to learn how to behave properly as a member of their respective clans. But the supposedly safe stronghold (in Montana, of all places) has a weakness, and danger threatens them all. The characters aren't very deeply drawn but they're well differentiated. I enjoyed this one.
I have read a previous horror novel by Popescu, an erotic vampire novel about twenty years ago. This one is about werewolves, sort of, and is for young adults, in fact it's the first of the Weregirls series. It's another variation of the Charmed formula, a group of girls - not sisters - who discover they have supernatural powers and who are destined to save the world from a rival group of evil teens, the Breed. The plot is nothing out of the ordinary, but the characters are better drawn. Unfortunately, the author chose to write this one in the present tense, a device which I always find distracting. It adds nothing to the story and makes the reader conscious of the author's hand. Those not bothered by such things might enjoy it more than I did because it's actually pretty well written, which makes my reaction to it even more frustrating. 6/22/07
The Missing by Sarah Langan, Harper, 9/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-087291-5
Sarah Langan's first novel, The Keeper, reminded me a great deal of Stephen King, and not in a purely derivative sense. She adds another small town horror with her second novel, one that bears considerable resemblance to the first, although it develops entirely differently. In fact, this one could easily have been marketed as science fiction and the cover copy is ambiguous enough that bookstores might have trouble deciding just where to put this. That might make it difficult to track down, which would be a shame because it's a very tense, even scary, but non-supernatural novel of terror.
The story starts in a small town in Maine (where else?) where something strange in the woods has begun to affect the local residents. They become increasingly aggressive and irrational, filled with nervous energy. As the situation worsens, we realize that it is literally a plague, that it is spreading rapidly, and that once it escapes the relatively small area of initial infection, it will put the entire world at risk. This was as smoothly and tensely written as Langan's first novel, and portions of it were as suspenseful as anything I've read this year. The payoff - though panoramic - was a bit of a let down for me though, because once the mystery was solved, the story took on a very familiar hue. Quibbles aside, Langan is looking more and more like a potential major player, in whatever field her publishers decide to put her work. 6/22/07
Monster Behind the Wheel by Michael McCarty and Mark McLaughlin, Sarob, 8/07, $50, ISBN 978-1-902309-59-0
As a child, Jeremy Carmichael fell off a Ferris wheel onto a woman, who died. As a college student, he is involved in an automobile accident that should have killed him. During the brief moment when he hovered between life and death, he paid a brief visit to the world of the dead, and he carries that bizarre image back with him when he is resuscitated. So far, sounds like a pretty standard horror story, right? Guess again. Shortly after he buys another car, he begins to hear the dead talking to him through the stereo speakers. And when he sleeps, he has bizarre dreams of that other reality, dreams that insist they are real and are more than usually convincing. The visions are bizarre, often funny in a twisted way, but Carmichael eventually takes them in stride and continues to lead what is, more or less, an ordinary lifestyle. But we know that it can't last. Innocuous items in the ordinary world begin to remind him of the land of the dead, and his own body seems to be undergoing some kind of gradual slide toward decay.
The plot is almost secondary in this one. What the others have done is create a parade of bizarre, amusing, unsettling, and just outright weird images. Some of the sequences are mesmerizing, others have an over the top quality that often turns horror into humor, the way we can sometimes laugh as the knife wielding killer that stalks many horror films stabs himself by accident, or the bizarre antics of the rotting zombies in any number of George Romero ripoffs perform odd parodies of their living selves. We might not care if Campbell falls apart - literally - but we're still interested in the steps that take him to his destination. This is going to be published in a limited edition (with an even more expensive deluxe). My only complaint about this phenomenon is that works like this one that potentially might appeal to a wider audience are likely to be overlooked in the long run. 6/20/07
The Long Last Call by John Skipp, Leisure, 8/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5843-0
This claustrophobic horror novel by John Skipp was previously published in hardcover by CD Publications and now reaches mass market. The setting is a sleazy strip bar where a mixed group of perverts and strippers, some desperate, some depraved, some just getting by, come together just as there arrives a mysterious man (if he is a man) who surprises everyone by passing out very expensive tips. As the rewards escalate, so too do the efforts of the strippers to do as he wishes and even the other patrons, who wish to ingratiate themselves with a man carrying a suitcase full of money.
As the night progresses, his demands - quietly delivered - nevertheless become increasing intense and it isn't long before the reader, and even some of the characters, realize that things are sliding out of control. This is a variant of the evil thing coming to a small town horror theme, and Skipp does a fine job of portraying the darker side of the human spirit. Unfortunately, I had two problems with the book, one small, one not. The small one is that things take longer to develop than necessary, particularly since it is obvious from the outset the direction the story will be taking. The second and more serious one is that while there are some efforts made to make a few of the characters seem sympathetic, they're not effective enough to get me emotionally committed to the story, and ultimately I was more curious about the details of the master manipulator's plans than I was in the fate of his victims. 6/20/07
Nowhere by Shane Christopher, Berkley, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21588-3
Matt Costello pens his second pseudonymous adventure of David Rodriguez and Mari Kinsella, who were introduced in the mostly psychological horror novel, In Dreams. They have more or less recovered from their ordeal in that one, but now there’s another serial killer on the loose, this one even more dangerous than the previous villain. And where the clue to the first was to be found in dreams, this time the solution may involve time travel, or its equivalent. Police detective and reporter are pitted against a man whose evil is not bound to the present, and whose secrets may be found in the minds of dolphins. The mystery itself has some intriguing aspects and a satisfying resolution but I'm afraid this is not among my favorite books by Costello. The clipped, staccato prose style feels rushed and without texture, and too much of the buildup feels like a routine crime novel. You won't feel cheated if you buy this one, but you won't be recommending it to your friends either. 6/20/07
Evil Harvest by Anthony Izzo, Pinnacle, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7860-1875-8
One of the standard set-ups for a modern horror novel is the evil that comes to a small town filled with good people. This new novel by the author of Cruel Winter stands the idea on its head. Lincoln, New York, is a town that is manifestly under the influence of demonic forces. The situation changes when a good man comes to the town, or rather returns to it, intent upon rooting out the forces that destroyed his family. Not everyone in the town is bad, of course, they just lack the nerve to stand up against the insinuated force, or they're its pawns. But even they sense something that stirs more than the usual unease because it's growing close to the time when sacrifices must be made, and that's where the title comes from.
Although the action picks up quickly and is reasonably fast paced, the novel feels emotionally flat to me. I think it's because it ended up more of an adventure story than the atmospheric tale of suspense and terror that the cover suggests. It's not a bad book by any means, but it seems more like a horror novel aimed at the men's adventure audience than horror fans. This one is noticeably better constructed than Izzo's first novel, but despite the interesting reversal in the premise, I didn't find the story as interesting. 6/19/07
Mr. Hands by Gary A. Braunbeck, Leisure, 8/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5610-0
I don't mean this as a slight when I say that the plot of this novel bears some resemblance to the first (and best) of the Pumpkinhead movies. There are two major characters, the first of whom, Ronnie, can foresee the unpleasant future of people he touches (particularly children) even when he himself is a toddler, and he has the ability to derail that future, although unfortunately the solution is to kill those he touches before they reach that part of their lives. Although it is clear to the reader that Ronnie is a kind of monster right from the outset, he feels as though he's doing good, as though he's forced to commit one evil to prevent a bigger one, and to a certain extent he's absolutely right. Eventually, however, he commits suicide in such a way that he becomes an even greater monster, a gigantic creature invisible to most of the world, but able to track down and destroy the people responsible for evil directed toward children. He has no emotions, no feelings, no recognition of remorse, but to a certain extent he's the tool of the second character rather than an independent agent.
She is similarly a monster, whose first child spontaneously aborted when Ronnie foresaw its fate, whose second child was abducted - apparently - at a carnival. Her eventual fate is never explicitly stated although it is strong suggested that she is dead. The mother goes a bit insane and eventually conjures Ronnie, who has become Mr. Hands, and uses him to kill people until she discovers that she has inadvertently sent him after a six year old boy, thereby becoming the very kind of monster - or actually recognizing that she has become one - that she was pledged to destroy. Despite some predictability in the plot, this is so smoothly written that you're unlikely to notice, and my only real quibble is that I don't understand how Ronnie could cause the spontaneous abortion, presumably through some mystical power, but has to kill his other victims in mundane physical ways. Has its creepy moments, considerable suspense, and poses some interesting questions about revenge, vigilantism, and our right to decide the future of others. 6/18/07
Dead Sea by Brian Keene, Leisure, 8/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5860-7
Zombie fiction seems to be enjoying at least a temporary flurry of popularity in the horror field, and Brian Keene has walked that way before. This new title is - like most of the others - in the tradition of George Romero's movie, The Night of the Living Dead - rather than the historically accurate zombie legends of Hugh Cave and Voodoo. They function more as vampires than zombies, walking around in the daylight, almost invulnerable, preying on the living and spreading their contagion as they feed. His protagonist this time is a gay Black man trying to survive in a city that is falling into chaos, and he tells us right up front that civilization is doomed, the human race cannot survive, and the characters will be lucky to make it to the end of the book. The worsening conditions drive a group of survivors out of the city onto a boat, pursued by undead humans, undead rats, even an undead lion and tiger. They believe they can gain a respite at sea because fishes and birds aren't affected, but the virus continues to mutate, jumps the gap between species, and before long we have zombie fish and birds, and even a zombie whale.
Keene does his best to bring innovation to the theme, and several of the individual sequences are quite powerful. Ultimately, unfortunately, this wasn't dramatically effective for me. Since it was clear that the characters were all doomed almost from the opening chapter, there's not much emotional effect when their subsequent straws of hope are crushed one by one. There's an interesting mix of characters, and naturally the prose itself is excellent, but I found it hard to empathize with the plight of the ever dwindling group of the still living. 6/18/07
Nor Flesh Nor Feathers by Cherie Priest, Tor, 10/07, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1310-2
I'm not sure how much attention Cherie Priest is getting from the horror audience, but it's almost certainly not enough. Her third adventure of Eden Moore underlines that point even more boldly than in her earlier works. Eden Moore has a touch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a touch of the Ghost Whisperer, and the end product is something different from either. Moore is a young woman who sees dead people, that is, she can see ghosts. In her first two outings she investigated the mystery of her own past, and then a town where Civil War ghosts have suddenly begun to affect the world of the living. That's the case in spades this time around.
A quiet river worms through a major city, but something not so quiet lives under the water and people who chance to visit the banks alone during the night are often never seen or heard from again. A long forgotten - or actually long covered up - tragedy has left some restless spirits behind, and they've been stirred up again, perhaps by the latest round of expansion and development. For whatever reason, they're beginning to carry off the living, and Eden Moore may be the only one who can convince them to end their murderous campaign. There's some nifty stuff here, including some genuine creepiness, snappy dialogue, and smooth, convincing narrative. The supernatural flooding of Chattanooga that leads to the climax will obviously draw comparisons to New Orleans, so much so that the author includes a disclaimer. The book was plotted and in process before Katrina. Regardless of its inspiration, it's a taut, well conceived, and skillfully executed thriller by one of the brightest (darkest?) of recent newcomers to the horror field. 6/12/07
Demons Are Forever by Julie Kenner, Berkley, 2007, $14, ISBN 978-0-425-21538-8
Kate Connor was first introduced in Carpe Demon, a blend of supernatural adventure, romance, and light humor. Connor is a retired demon hunter who discovers she can't disengage herself from her former profession quite so easily. Although she is married and plans to settle into a staid, suburban life, the demons were after her in her debut, and her efforts to raise her kids and help her husband's political career ran into more supernatural obstacles in California Demon.
This is her third adventure, and the stakes are higher than ever. First of all, her teenaged daughter has figured out what's going on and decides she wants to be just like Mom when she grows up. Flattering, but dangerous. Then there's the problem with her husband, who may have returned from the dead to possess the body of an innocent man, and who probably holds a grudge or two about his former wife. And her enemies in the world of demons haven't forgotten about her either. Not to mention some more ordinary marital difficulties.
There have been several writers writing this sort of story recently. MaryJanice Davidson has so far proven herself the most consistently entertaining, but based on four books I've read by Kenner, there's stiff competition breathing down her neck. There are hints of the old Unknown style fantasy here, with a pinch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for good measure. The plot is diverse and fast moving, and the interaction between mother and daughter is particularly entertaining. This is her best book so far, but I doubt very much the progression will be ending here. 6/11/07
Toy Trouble by Engle & Barnes, Brilliance Audio, 2007, $9.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-0838-8
I have not been favorably impressed by the previous volumes in the Strange Matter series, but this one - despite its trite plot - is actually pretty good. The young lady who serves as primary reader does an excellent job, for one thing, and it is only rarely that I got the sense that she was reading rather than simply talking. There are also no gaping plot holes, and except for a couple of awkward constructions of no consequence the prose is pretty smooth. The plot is that of the magic toyshop gone wrong, which even provided the basis for at least one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In this case, four young friends buy toys at the new shop which just opened in town, only to discover that the toys are inhabited by the spirit of a Ghast, a ghost that specifically animates toys and preys on children. Before long they're fighting malevolent dolls and plastic toyshops, then have to venture into the heart of the shop to rescue one of their friends. Definitely for kids, but adults won't mind listening along with them. 6/11/07
Plant People by Engle & Barnes, Brilliance Audio, 2007, $9.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-0850-8
This is a multi-cast production rather than a simple reading of a book. It’s labeled for young adults but it’s clearly aimed at pre-teens along the lines of the Goosebumps series. I’ve heard a couple previous titles from this team and haven’t been impressed. This one is somewhat better, the story of a young girl who suspects there is something strange about the new neighbors, who have an obvious affinity for plants. Among other things, their kids eat bugs. The primary narrator does a pretty good job, but several of the other characters are – designedly – speaking in inhuman monotones that fits the story but makes for boring listening.
I don’t have a problem with the simplified writing style but it drives me crazy when authors make stupid mistakes that they would never be allowed to get away with in a book for adults. For example, the protagonist’s mother is on a health food kick and keeps pushing celery (which has no food value except as roughage) on her daughter. A bit later, the new neighbor describes himself as a flora and fauna arranger, which might have been clever except that it appears from the context that the authors think that flora and fauna are two different kinds of plant. The kids use terms and verbal constructions that would be unnatural in adults, let alone children.
There are also major plot holes. I’m resigned to accepting that monsters in these books can violate the law of conservation of mass and energy (the plants grow to giant size without any source of nourishment), but if they can generate a chemical that compels humans to obey them, why do they continually fail to use it on the protagonist, who eventually destroys them all? And if they dissolve in the light from fluorescent bulbs, how did the kids ever manage to survive more than a few seconds in a public school? One might argue that for this age group, it’s not necessary to be logical and plausible, but I think that’s precisely what’s wrong with much of the fiction is this area. If you treat kids like ignoramuses, how can you expect them to act otherwise? 6/8/07
You In? by Kealan Patrick Burke, Bad Moon Books, 2007, $15.00
This is a limited edition chapbook, which you can order from www.badmoonbooks.com. The protagonist has just taken a job as night watchman at the Wickerwood Inn, which has been closed for some time because of a number of unpleasant incidents but which has recently changed hands and been reopened. He has a less than cheery past himself, a lifetime of compulsive gambling, career failures, and apparently the death of his child as the result of a brick thrown through his window by an enemy. His first night on the job has unintended results when he encounters a ghostly group of gamblers. Not a bad story, but it doesn't feel substantial enough to me to justify a special chapbook or to command the price of two paperback novels. 6/6/07
Black Tide by Del Stone Jr., Telos, 2007, £7.99, ISBN 978-1-84583-049-6
This is probably my favorite of the novellas published by this British publishing house, which specializes in stories of this length and has done a number of interesting titles in the past. It opens with an aging college professor, one of his female students, and her boyfriend traveling to a tiny island off the coast of Florida to conduct some maritime studies. Almost as soon as they arrive, the rumors of some serious and toxic pollutant become real as a mysterious cloud spreads along the coast, killing everyone it touches. The threesome survive by burrowing into the sand as it passes over after one of the creepiest sequences I’ve ever read.
They are attacked by deformed people who walked under the ocean to get to the island. Fortunately light, even from a flashlight, is enough to make them burst into flame and they repel the first invasion of their poor excuse for a refuge. But their batteries won’t last and they can’t count on rescue. The plot sounds like any of several badly made zombie movies, but trust me, this is far more effective than most such you'll have seen on the screen. Stone does a superb job of evoking an atmosphere of mysterious but pervasive doom. Relentless suspense from beginning to end. This is one of the scariest things I’ve read in a long time. 6/2/07
Wicked Things by Thomas Tessier, Leisure, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5560-6
My big complaint about Thomas Tessier is that he doesn't write more, because I have yet to read anything by him that wasn't first rate. This new novel is no exception. The protagonist is an independent insurance investigator sent to a remote rural town to investigate a series of suspicious accidental deaths. There is nothing concrete to show that they are anything except what they appear to be, but shortly after his arrival, the agent who handled the case is shot to death, apparently by his secretary, although she doesn't appear to have had any reason and she herself is also dead, in what is almost certainly a fake suicide. Although his boss is reluctant to pursue the matter, the agent perseveres and notes other unusual aspects to the town, strange lights in the sky and even in the ground, odd singing in the night, a ubiquitous coat of arms that even appears on the local churches. One night the agent is assaulted by a group of teenagers, or at least that's what they appear to be. Clearly he is being warned off, and that just makes him madder. But the town of Winship has more surprises waiting for him. This reminded me of some of the best work of Algernon Blackwood and Robert Aickman, atmospheric, low key, but relentlessly suspenseful.
Included in the book is a novella, "Scramburg, USA". Howie is eighteen years old and abuses his foster parents so much that the local police beat him up and run him out of town, but not quite. He sneaks back in, determined to deliver a little payback. With several of his friends, he initiates a wave of violent vandalism that end with murder, and perhaps something more. Not as good as the main story, but like I said, I've never read anything by Tessier that wasn't very good indeed. 5/25/07
Unholy Birth by Andrew Neiderman, Pocket, 8/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-1684-2
Kate Dobson is happily involved in a long term relationship with another woman, but she has another need which she feels compelled do satisfy. She wants to have a child. In order to do so, she makes use of a fertility clinic to receive artificial insemination, which should have solved her problem but actually leads to others - more serious ones. The sperm donor's identity is understandably concealed, but she receives a comprehensive description of his state of health - if its truthful and if it tells the whole story. There is also something very odd about the clinic's receptionist and Kate discovers that despite her attempts to keep things confidential, her plans have become public knowledge.
Things start to accelerate after that. Someone makes a clumsy attempt to run down her lover with an automobile. Kate herself begins to experience physical feelings that should only be present once a pregnancy is well advanced, and then she receives a mysterious telephone call warning her to get an abortion. But medical tests seem to indicate that she's not even pregnant. A successful murder follows and Kate feels as though she is caught between two secretive organizations fighting one another with her as the battlefield. Is this a medical experiment gone wrong or is her pregnancy something beyond the limits of science? You'll have to read it to find out. The story is a little slow in developing and the progression is predictable, but Neiderman uses a light, workmanlike prose style that should hold your interest until the final revelation. 5/20/07
Shadow Coast by Philip Haldane, Hippocampus, 2007, $15, ISBN 0-9771734-7-X
Native American legends meet H.P. Lovecraft, sort of, in this debut novel. The setting is the Pacific Northwest where an archaeological dig has unearthed a significant find, but one no one wants to talk about. In fact, a subtle supernatural influence has spread from the site to a nearby town, where the protagonist is at first puzzled, then disturbed, and ultimately frightened about what is happening. The legend involves a two headed serpent which will steal your soul if you don't stand up to it. Possession, the quest for power, personal ambition, and other emotions generate conflict in this atmospheric and quite well written novel. One of the blurbs compares the book to Algernon Blackwood and, making allowances for the more modern tone, I think that's a fair comparison. It's refreshing to read a horror novel that doesn't rely on blood and gore or any of the familiar icons of the field for a change. 5/19/07
Many Bloody Returns edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner, Ace, 9/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01522-1
Theme anthologies continue to get more and more specific. This one is a collection of vampire stories, but they all take place at birthday celebrations. What’s next? Left handed vampires with dolphin tattoos who knit for a hobby? Anyway, I only read a story or two a day to avoid overload, and on balance it's a pretty good collection if you're not already terminally overdosed on the undead. And while I'm including this under Horror fiction, most of the stories are anything but, ranging from mystery to humor to puzzle story to mild romance. The opening story by Charlaine Harris features her recurring character, Sookie Stackhouse, the waitress who gets involved with good and evil vampires in each of her novels. This time she meets and unmasks a Dracula impostor in a brief, well written but pretty minor story. It does have one good line. “If experience has taught me anything, it’s to dispose instantly of bloodstained clothing.” Christopher Golden follows with a far more substantial piece, and a different variety of vampire, a coming of age story like you’ve never read before. Bill Crider contributes a humorous take on the teenaged undead in “I Was a Teenage Vampire”, followed by Kelley Armstrong’s “Twilight”, which was a bit too long for its story.
Jim Butcher has a very long Harry Dresden story, in which his quest to find a missing vampire on his birthday turns into a mystery and near disaster. I thought this one was better than some of the Dresden novels, avoiding some of the formulaic aspects of that series. P.N. Elrod provides a pretty good short adventure of her popular vampire hero, Jack Fleming, and Rachel Caine draws on her new Morganville Vampire series for her contribution. Jeanne Stein, author of a couple of vampire novels, has one of the better stories with "The Witch and the Wicked", wherein a witch caters a vampire birthday party, incinerates the host, and ends up with his consciousness inhabiting her body. Tanya Huff also has an above average story, "Blood Wrapped", featuring her undead romance novelist.
Carolyn Haines adds a well written, tragic, but relatively slight story, and Tate Hallaway follows up with a romantic interlude. Elaine Viets' "Vampire Hours" is an interesting, semi-mystery involving murder and a nicely nasty bit of revenge. Last up is co-editor Kelner's "How Stella Got Her Grave Back", the best title in the collection. It opens with a nice image, a vampire visiting her grave on her birthday. There's a good deal of humor in this one; vampires are apparently fond of practical jokes. It's a clever story, but about as far from horrific as you can get and still have vampires. 5/9/07
The Old Power Returns by Morven Westfield, Harvest Shadows, 2007, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-9741740-7-5
Westfield's second novel picks up the story begun in Darksome Thirst, in which contemporary witchcraft and vampirism collided. Alicia survived her encounters in that earlier novel thanks to the intercession of a coven of witches, but was forever changed by the experience. Now she's trying to reshape her life, but the ghosts - metaphorical - of the past won't let her rest easily. The second branch of the novel involves thecoven of witches, who are not the stereotypical crones of children's fiction but modern women who organize their activities much the way you would expect for any other social occasion. Elsewhere Frederick, a vampire, keeps a low profile, disposing of his occasional over indulgences by concealing the bodies of his victims. The coven believes that they've disposed of the undead evil menacing Alicia, but some strange behavior on the part of some flies leads one of their number to suspect that they're about to face round two of the struggle, and subsequent evidence confirms her suspicions.
Although the story moves forward more deliberately than in most horror thrillers, there's also clear tension throughout and the sense that the various characters are on a collision course even before their paths cross. There are lots of little bits in here that make the unrealistic elements seem almost mundane, like the vampire running out of gas, the almost humdrum witchcraft. The vampire cat is also a nice touch. The Wiccan lore gives an aura of authenticity without dumping long passages of explication or having the characters talk about it incessantly. Despite the supernatural elements, this isn't as melodramatic as it might have been, with a lot more emphasis on the characters than on their magical or supernatural talents and nature. And it's nice to have vampires portrayed as evil or at best amoral rather than as dashing lovers, private detectives, or angst ridden introverts. 5/8/07
Weird Tales #343, Feb/Mar 2007, $5.95
This issue of the venerable magazine of horror and dark fantasy includes a special Joe Lansdale section, with a new story by him as well as a reprint of one of this best, "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with the Dead Folks". The new story is set in the Old West, a remarkably under used setting in weird fiction, and its a great one, which almost goes without saying. There's also an interview conducted by Chet Williamson. That might look like the highlight of the issue, but actually the contents are solid throughout. K.D. Wentworth's "The Red and the Green" is a biting satire about our obsession with Christmas, in this case transformed into a virulent and seductive plague. Holly Phillips' "The Dead Boy" is nearly as good, the story of a psychic who - like most psychics - isn't quite certain what her visions are telling her. "The Pool" by Michael Shea is a creepy tale about a mysterious force that emerges from an excavation. The issues ends with a short short, "After the Election" by Michael Northrup, in which a master vampire solves a Malthusian problem. A nice solid issue. 5/8/07
Marked by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast, St Martins, 2007, $8.95, ISBN 978-0-312-36026-9
I've read a few fantasy romances by P.C. Cast, all of which were well done. This is her first collaboration with her daughter, and also apparently the first in the House of Night series, a vampire novel that I am tempted to call Harry Potter and the Undead. The protagonist is a student at a school for vampires, and she isn't entirely happy with having been chosen for that honor, since it creates a barrier between her and her old friends in high school. As a kind of compensation, she has very unusual powers for a vampire, one of a handful who display above average potential. You see, there's a vampire goddess in this one as well, and she bestows her favors in very unpredictable ways. Naturally there's another drawback, because she develops a taste for blood, and old affections aren't always going to be enough to keep her fangs where they belong. She eventually finds a purpose, however, because a cult within the vampire cult is engaged in forbidden practices that endanger them all. Not bad as a vampire variation, and I'm kind of surprised this isn't being marketed for young adults (I've been informed that this IS being marketed for the young adult audience). There are some romantic elements also, but they're comparatively superficial.
The Very Bloody Marys by M. Christian, Haworth, 2007, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-56023-535-4
Vampire detectives are nothing new, but this one is not going to fit the mold you're probably expecting. Valentino is a San Francisco cop, but he's also one of the undead, and he's also gay. As if he didn't have enough problems to overcome, he's newly converted, the vampire training him has disappeared, and he's suddenly in the middle of a crisis. There are good and bad vampires, you see, and a bunch of the latter have formed a ruthless gang who prey on hapless humans so indiscriminately that it's only a matter of time until their existence becomes obvious and both the living and the dead in San Francisco are going to find themselves in very difficult times. So it's up to him to rise to the occasion because he's sort of...a stakeholder in the status quo? Anyway, despite the copious quantities of blood, this doesn't take itself too seriously, and it's written in a flippant, exaggerated style that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. I enjoyed the plot, but I think it would have been a lot better if the author had adopted a less intrusive prose style. Oh, the murderous vampires travel around on scooters, a nice touch. 5/4/07
The Midnight Road by Tom Piccirilli, Bantam, 7/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-38408-6
Tom Piccirilli's latest is a creepy little thriller. Flynn works for child services and he responds to a complaint of child abuse at what seems an otherwise typical home. The daughter seems fine but the mother is clearly under stress, and Flynn's instincts lead him to look in the basement, where he finds the woman's brother imprisoned in a cage, badly scarred, and obviously mentally retarded. He confronts the woman, discovers that her husband is the one who called in the tip, then flees with the child and the retarded man after the woman shoots her husband. There is an accident, the mother dies, and Flynn is briefly dead himself, although the paramedics bring him back to life. It seems a bizarre case already but it gets even stranger. The husband survives but won't say anything, and Flynn seems drawn into danger despite his aversion to it. Then a woman brings him a message indicating that everything is his fault and a sniper promptly kills her right in front of him. So what is going on?
I'm not going to tell you, actually, although it's pretty obvious it has something to do with Flynn's temporary death. Piccirilli almost always twists reality with such subtlety that it's sometimes hard to tell where the real tapers off and the fantastic starts and this one is no exception. Flynn is a bit rough around the edges, a shade larger than life, but he fits the part perfectly. Expect some surprises but no cheap tricks before this one is over. 4/21/07
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, Gollancz, 2007, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07912-0
Judas Coyne is an aging rock star who lives in a remote mansion with the latest in a series of lovers, nicknamed Georgia, and his two dogs. Coyne collects odd items of a maudlin nature and he is tempted to buy a suit on an auction site that supposedly brings with it a genuine ghost. When the suit arrives, so does the ghost, but only then does he discover that he has been tricked. One of his earlier lovers committed suicide and her stepfather, blaming Coyne, decided to get even after his own death. It is his ghost, provided by means of the dead woman’s sister, that has arrived, and it’s a nasty one with the power to impose its will on others. In short order, Coyne’s assistant has committed suicide and he himself has almost murdered Georgia. Surviving that attack, the two set out to track down the woman from whom the ghost was sent.
The novel loses a little of its intensity after they leave the farm, although it regains its momentum later on. I had some trouble with the malevolent ghost. If he's so powerful that he could compel Coyne's assistant to commit suicide after a single brief exposure, then why does it take him so long to mount an effective attack on Coyne himself or Georgia? Why wait until the discovery that Coyne's two dogs can both see and physically attack the ghost, providing them cover? There's a surprise revelation about the dead woman that I anticipated, but it doesn't matter whether or not you make the same correct guess because it has no real effect on the story. There is a series of confrontations that pick up the action and once the hook is reset, you'll find it hard to put the book down before your each the end. All in all, a very impressive debut novel from a writer whose short stories have already received significant acclaim. 4/19/07
Bec by Darren Shan, Little, Brown, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-316-01389-5
The fourth title in the Demonata series, supernatural fantasy adventures for younger readers, claims to be "chilling", but despite the plethora of demons found within this slender volume, it is more adventure than suspense and certainly didn't chill me at all. In a primitive world - apparently our own - the population is plagued by the appearance of the demonata, demons from other arms of the Multiverse. The young protagonist whose adventures we follow is an unusual boy whose abilities and nature confound the druids and priestesses but who seems fated to have a serious impact on the state of the world.
Much of what follows involves battles with the other worldly invaders, or plans to deal with them. The story is written in present tense, which also grates on my nerves. This one seems more like a filler than a progression. I won't describe the ending, which is actually quite surprising, but despite its novelty, I found it disappointing, no real payoff for what had preceded it. The fifth in the series, Blood Beast, is due out later this year. Since my first novel was Blood Beast (Pinnacle, 1988, but not my original title), I'll have a special reason for nothing its appearance. Somehow I doubt there will be much else in common.
Moon's Fury by C.T. Adams & Cathy Clamp, Tor, 10/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-5664-2
This is the fifth in the Sazi series, contemporary paranormal romances involving packs of werewolves, or more precisely shape shifters since it's not always a wolf form. In previous volumes, we've been introduced to shapechanging hitmen and police officers and had extensive exposure to a hidden world of creatures living secretly within human society. Some of this is the kind of pack animal politics that dominated several of Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake novels, but with a bit less angst. These are romance novels but without the common excesses of that form, and the plotting is solid and well managed. This particular installment describes the clash between two packs, one displaced from Minnesota to Texas, the other a more established pack which resents the invasion of their territory. Much of the conflict is channeled through the two pack leaders, an experienced and determined woman on one side, a resigned but equally determined man on the other. The newcomers have a slight tactical advantage because their leader has just been appointed the local sheriff, which gives him some degree of control over events. Their conflict finally resolves itself when a mutual enemy appears to threaten both packs, and only by united action are they able to survive. If you don't like this sort of thing, then this isn't for you. The story is well told but it's obvious from the outset that the two leaders will eventually become lovers. Only the means of their reconciliation is unknown. But if you don't mind the familiarity, and if you do enjoy this particular brand of paranormal adventure, then you're not likely to find a better recent example. At least one additional volume, Timeless Moon, will follow. 4/16/07
The Secret History of Vampires edited by Darrell Schweitzer, DAW, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0410-9
About twenty years ago, I had an idea for a novel based on the assumption that Christ had been a vampire and that’s why he rose from the dead. I was working on the outline when someone named J. Eccarius came out with a very bad novel using the same idea, and I thought the gimmick had been wasted forever. Harry Turtledove gives it a bit of new life with the opening story of this all original anthology, whose theme is that vampires have secretly been interacting with human history all along. We just didn’t know it. Turtledove’s story lets us watch the new Pope discovering the truth. Mike Resnick, unsurprisingly, uses Teddy Roosevelt as his protagonist. He crosses swords, almost literally, with a vampire preying on the top criminals of New York City. The story has a nice set up, but the ending is kind of flat and rushed. P.D. Cacek’s “Smoke and Mirrors” picks up the pace a bit, with Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle facing a vampire medium, but the ending on this one also feels truncated. Ron Goulart has the best of the early stories with “Garbo Quits”. A cheesy horror film writer discovers a genuine cult of vampires that includes a number of famous faces among their membership
“Blood of Dreams” by Sarah Hoyt suggests that Lenin and Stalin were both among the undead, and still are, but there’s not much story other than that revelation itself. Carrie Vaughn’s “A Princess of Spain” travels back to the early 16th Century for a more effective story of a female vampire from France acting patriotically to weaken but not kill the next ruler of England, until thwarted by the prince’s new Spanish wife and his brother. Some nice irony in this one. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, predictably, contributes another story of St. Germain, before he adopted that name, a nice piece about his encounter with the wife of Socrates.
I’m usually skeptical of stories by the editor of an anthology, but Schweitzer’s collaboration with John Gregory Betancourt is quite good, although it’s another story whose resolution is primarily the discovery of the vampiric nature of an historical character, in this case Cleopatra. Gregory Frost adds a narrative bit of free verse about the Trojan War and Brian Stableford contributes a more intellectual story, a vampire St. Anthony debating the devil himself. Ian Watson’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the high points in the book, featuring Tycho Brahe. Tanith Lee and Keith Taylor help end on a strong note with their stories of Napoleon and ancient Egypt.
None of the stories are less than well written although the anthology as a whole succumbs to the theme anthology syndrome. It is probably better to read these in small batches as I did rather than straight through. Goulart, Watson, Lee, and Taylor were the ones I enjoyed most, but I wasn't tempted to skim through any of them, even the weaker ones. 4/6/07
The Rise of the Black Wolf by Derek Benz & J.S. Lewis, Orchard, 2007, $12.99, ISBN 978-0-439-83774-3
This is the second volume in a young adult series, Grey Griffins, and I have not seen the first, The Revenge of the Shadow King, so it's not clear to me how the young protagonists, the Grey Griffins, went from an ordinary life in Minnesota to being the secret champions of the world. Their chief opponent is Morgan Le Fay, who wants to end the world as we know it and who has command of a considerable army of legendary creatures to help her. For volume two, they're off to Scotland to spend a vacation in a drafty old castle, but distance doesn't discourage their enemy, who attacks them this time with a troop of werewolves. The story is rather more violent than I expected for something aimed at early teens, and the plot is fairly suspenseful. My only real complaint was the dialogue, which feels choppy and artificial. I suppose that fifth and sixth graders probably do speak in choppy, artificial ways much of the time, but since we generally don't include all the false starts and meanderings of adult dialogue in novels, it seems only fair to do the same for younger characters. It's probably find for its target audience, but older readers are likely to find the flat dialogue distracting.
Sarah Pinborough's fourth horror novel is in some ways her best yet, but in other ways not. Let's look at the down side first. The story involves the ghost of a child who died thirty years before the events of the novel, and who is back now to seek revenge on those responsible. During the first few chapters, I kept flashing to scenes from John Saul's early novels, when he made vengeful child ghosts the main staple of his career, exhausting the theme so thoroughly that eventually his new books seemed like self parodies. Has the gap been long enough that readers won't feel that same sense of deja vu? Hopefully yes, because this is actually her most suspenseful novel. The dead girl was a monster even during her life time and though her death was an accident, it was partly engineered by several people who wanted to teach her a lesson. Her plans for revenge evolve slowly, avoiding the obvious trap of having a succession of luridly destroyed death scenes, and her chief opponent, Alex, is a sympathetic and convincing character. So despite my initial trepidation, I ended up liking this one very much indeed, including the thrilling climax.
Night Life by Ray Garton, Leisure, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5675-7
When horror fiction was flourishing back in the 1980s, one of the writers I followed closely was Ray Garton. Although he was never particularly prolific, he was always reliable. His themes were generally nothing out of the ordinary - vampires, sinister cults, and so on - but he brought an unusual intensity to them, often a blend of sex and violence that few others were able to achieve, perhaps most notably in Crucifax. His vampire novel - Live Girls - is still probably his best novel, the story of a man who visits the night club scene looking for a new thrill, and finds far more than he anticipated. This new novel, originally published by Subterranean Press in 2005, is the sequel. The protagonist survived his encounter with vampires, but he didn't destroy them all and the survivors have been looking for him for two decades. And now they've found him, thanks to a new investigation of the events that climaxed the earlier novel. There are moments of the old intensity in this follow-up, but it may be that the author has gone to this particular well once too often because the novel lacks the throbbing suspense of its predecessor. It's smoothly written and horror and vampire fans should enjoy it, but for me at least it failed to live up to the high water mark left by Live Girls.
The Cat Lady by Damien Graves, Scholastic, 2007, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-439-89391-6
This is the sixth volume in the Midnight Library series, each of which collects three unrelated stories for younger readers, these three at least rather more intense than most similar series like Goosebumps. The author is a house pseudonym, in this case apparently for Allan Frewin Jones. The longest of the three stories, "Who Dares Wins", is just okay; a group of kids are forced to confront their darkest fears when a new person joins their group. Much better is the title story, wherein a girl discovers that the weird old lady with the cats is more than she seems. Best of all is a fairly creepy ghost story, "Don't Wake the Baby". A step up from the comparatively shallow horrors of the 1990s young readers' books in this genre, particularly as the stories pull few punches and are not written down to a perceived level of unsophisticated reader. I wonder if the success of the relatively difficult Harry Potters books has had a subtle effect here.
Blood Drive by Jeanne C. Stein, Ace, 6/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01456-9
This is the second in a romantic supernatural series, marketed by Ace as fantasy, previously published by Imajinn Books, which I believe specializes in romance. The first, The Becoming, introduced Anna Strong, a professional bounty hunter who is forced to alter her habits, but only part of her profession after she is attacked and transformed into a vampire. It was obviously derivative but not at all badly written. The sequel isn't bad either, although like the first in the series it's written in present tense so if you're one of those like me who has trouble with this narrative technique, you might want to try one of Stein's competitors, because there are a lot of other books with similar themes. I did manage to get through this one, mostly on the strength of the central character. Despite the vampire theme, however, this is more like a traditional crime novel involving exploitation of minors and other unsavory activities. And that's probably my single largest disappointment. The book has some really reprehensible people in it, but no one who comes across as actively evil, and in a novel of the supernatural, I expect something a little more than your average sleaze ball.
The Chick and the Dead by Casey Daniels, Avon, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-082147-0
The Scent of Shadows by Vicki Pettersson, Eos, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-089891-5
The number of new paranormal romance novels that show up in the bookstores every month is truly astonishing, everything from frothy supernatural comedies to angst heavy vampire novels, adventures in alternate worlds to murder mysteries involving ghosts. I tried several of them recently and found them a very mixed bag not only in terms of plot and setting but in quality as well. These are two of the more promising ones, both parts of an ongoing series. The first is the second adventure of Pepper Martin, a character clearly derived from the influence of the television show, The Ghost Whisperer. Following an accident in a graveyard, Martin can see and hear ghosts, and she is often importuned by them to deal with some lingering issue from their previous life, which so far seems to involve at least one murder in each instance. This time Martin is coerced into looking into the activities of a prominent author, whose dead sister is not very happy with her surviving relative. Our reluctant detective finds considerably more than she expected. Well written by an author who, under own name Connie Laux, has produced several previous books of varying interest. It's labeled as a mystery, so you might find it in that part of your local bookstore.
Pettersson seems to be a new writer, and this is her debut, although a sequel, The Taste of Night, is already scheduled for later this year. She has a more aggressive, physical protagonist, Joanna Archer, which is only appropriate since she deals with a much more physical plot. As with Pepper Martin, she survived a traumatic incident in the past which seems to have triggered a sensitivity to the supernatural, because she discovers that Las Vegas is the battleground for a secret war between good and evil, light and dark, creatures with supernatural and superhuman powers, some of whom have a taste for blood. For a romance, this is darker than usual, and some of the scenes are so heavily gore laden that it's no surprise the publisher hasn't labeled this one a romance either, simply fiction, which makes me wonder just where it is going to be shelved in bookstores. There's occasionally some minor stiffness in the prose, but in general this looks to be a rather promising series.
The Good Ghouls' Guide to Getting Even by Julie Kenner, Jam, 2007, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21391-9
Julie Kenner is the author of a pretty good light supernatural romance series about a demon hunting housewife. This is, as far as I know, her first venture into the young adult market. When I read the cover blurb and discovered it was about high school vampires, I gave an involuntary shudder and almost pushed it to the "probably not" pile, and if I hadn't enjoyed her other books, that's where it would probably be right now. But my backlog is low and it's not very long so I decided to give it a try and within a few pages I knew I was going to finish it. The content isn't all that interesting in terms of plot. The protagonist ran into the wrong jock, he happened to be undead, and now she is too, and that puts a crimp in her college plans. So she decides to get even with him and his buddies, a task that turns out to be harder than she expected, because some of the undead are nice people, and some of the living people are not. I like my vampires mean and nasty and preferably unclean as well, so I really shouldn't have liked this book, and if it had been much longer I would probably have found my interest flagging. But as it is, the snappy narrative style, perky characters, and rapid pace kept me reading until I reached the advertisement for a sequel, Good Ghouls Do. I'll be reading that one as well.
The Haunting of Cambria by Richard Taylor, Tor, 7/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-765-31705-6
Ghost stories, in short form, are are a little like sonnets in that even though we can usually anticipate all of the individual elements, we can still enjoy the final product. Ghost novels, on the other hand, are much more difficult to sustain and, frankly, ever since Peter Straub's Ghost Story, only a handful of writers like Rick Hautala have seemed capable of doing anything effective with the theme. There is also a subtle, often blurred distinction between ghost stories and haunted house stories, and though this first novel appears initially to be a straightforward ghosts story, it's really about a kind of haunted house - actually a bed-and-breakfast. The protagonist is a man whose wife died in a tragic accident, and who believes her spirit now lives in the business they'd hoped to develop together. Which is true, but only after a fashion.
Recovered from his injuries, Theo Parker decides to carry through with the original plans, in which task he is assisted by Eleanor Gacy, his property manager. There is friction between them in the early stages, in large part because of Parker's grief and perhaps uncertain health, although there is a jerky quality to their interaction that feels very artificial, and Parker's sudden mood swings are a bit too dramatic to be completely believable. In short order - rather too short order - the usual odd sounds and events are occurring and Parker is denying the possibility aloud that the building is haunted while thinking about it in secret. The manifestations come rapidly, too rapidly, as though the author was hurrying to establish that there was haunting going on, which conclusion the reader would have reached long before. Lacking any new twists, they end up interrupting the story more than advancing it, because we can tell by now that the real focus is the interrelationship between the two main characters. And there's lots of screaming going on, much of it an overreaction to what is actually happening.
Add to this the malevolent mother-in-law who wants vengeance for the death of her daughter. Sprinkle with a few other standard devices of the form like a seance and by the middle of the book the sense of deja vu is quite strong. Oddly enough, it is only then that the author begins to introduce some novelty, the nature of which I don't want to describe because the disentanglement of the plot in the later chapters is the main reason for reading this one. Taylor has an interesting concept to reveal, but I think it was a major strategic mistake to precede it with such a conservative and sometimes awkward story, one which might discourage readers from ever reaching the original material.
Better the Devil by Mike Wild, Black Flame, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-432-5
"Soul chewing supernatural terror" says the cover blurb. Well, the second novel in the Caballistics, Inc. series is hardly that, though it's a pretty good supernatural romp. This is another game tie-in, concerned with the operation of the one-time Department Q, a secretive British governmental organization whose purpose is to deal with supernatural threats to the nation. Budget restraints have forced the government to outsource the job, and the spin off is known as Caballistics, Inc. The premise is that there is a kind of agreement between good and evil not to use sorcery in London, a form of mutual deterrence that has started to break down in this installment. Some powerful force wants Caballistics neutralized, even if that means violating the agreement and risking a wider and more devastating conflict. Before long, London is overrun by golems and other beasties, and the Lord of Chaos is poised to pounce. Wild's first installment in this series, Hell on Earth, was a more than fair occult adventure story. This one is even better, an over the top update of Dennis Wheatley.
Key to Conflict by Talia Gryphon, Ace, 5/07, $7.99, ISBN 0-441-01593-4
Gillian Key is the latest feisty heroine to debut in a series of novels in which she battles supernatural evil in a world very similar to our own. There's an interesting twist to this one because Key is a psychologist who specializes in treating non-human patients. She also has considerable expertise in armed and unarmed combat. The author gets the series off to a high profile start by having Key travel to Transylvania on her latest case, and coming into direct conflict with the most famous of all vampires, Dracula. It's not exactly our world though, because years earlier the Paranormal Wars led to the uneasy acceptance of the existence of vampires and other creatures of legend. The balance of power is uneasy afterward, and there is growing evidence that a secret group is plotting evil. The story is pretty good, but some of the characters, particularly the vampires, speak in an awkwardly formal manner that I found irritating at times and unconvincing throughout. Key is a sufficiently original character that I'd be happy to see more of her adventures, and presumably the pseudonymous Gryphon will improve with practice.
The Devil You Know by Mike Carey, Warner, 7/07, $24.99, ISBN 0-446-58030-9
Carey is the author of several graphic novels, but I think this is his first all prose book, a pleasantly suspenseful story of the supernatural. The protagonist is Felix Castor, a freelance exorcist. Think The Ghostbusters with a darker sense of humor. Castor has been having a second thoughts about his avocation ever since a couple of close calls suggested that sooner or later he's going to tangle with something stronger or smarter than he is. His latest assignment is a case in point, a haunted museum whose undesired tenant is rather more tenacious than expected. It's hard enough learning how to call a relatively innocuous spirit; the truly malevolent ones are a different order of magnitude. And as if that wasn't bad enough, there are a few among the living who seem to be taking an unhealthy interest in Castor's life. When the ghost turns out to be a succubus, the situation escalates violently. Mysteries proliferate. Why is there an entire room missing? What secrets can be derived from some apparently incomprehensible computer printouts? Has this particular case become personally directed at our hero? I can't tell you much more without spoiling the ending. Despite some creepiness here and there, this reads more like an adventure story with supernatural overtones than a horror story, but it's a very good example of whatever it is, and most readers should find themselves more than adequately rewarded for their time.
The Dead Girl's Dance by Rachel Caine, Jam, 2007, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22089-9
The Morganville Vampires series is aimed at young adult fans of vampire fiction. Claire Danvers has more challenges than greet most college students because the town where she lives is heavily populated with the Undead. In fact, her roommate has a disturbing habit of disappearing during the daylight, although the two of them get along together quite well. On the other hand, her boyfriend's father heads a group of aggressive vampire hunters. When a fraternity schedules a dance, you don't need a lot of experience with horror fiction to know that the tidings are decidedly dire. The various forces clash and a vampire Armageddon looms, but don't worry, the next title in the series is due out later this year. Caine, who has done adult horror fiction as well, elevates the YA vampire novel considerably with her crisp prose and zippy dialogue.
The Everlasting by Tim Lebbon, Leisure, 5/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5429-9
The arrival of a new Tim Lebbon is always cause for celebration. His horror fiction has been consistently innovative and often surprising. This new one is, technically, a ghost story, but it's not like anything you will have read before. As a child, Scott was very attached to his grandfather, a peculiar man who murdered his best friend and committed suicide for reasons that have never been adequately explained. Scott believes that his grandfather spoke to him after he had died, and that he was physically confronted by the ghost of the dead friend, although he's more a revenant than a departed spirit. Fortunately, that's the last encounter with the supernatural he has for many years.
Unfortunately, that respite runs out. A mysterious letter arrives at Scott's house, he begins to sense that he is being watched, and catches glimpses of the shades of the departed congregating around his house. His wife is initially skeptical until she also begins to see things, and then is abducted by an angry ghost into a kind of ethereal otherwhere called the Wide. Literally moments later, a woman appears in Scott's house and tells him that she is one of a small group of immortals searching for the mysterious Chord of Souls, a series of tablets upon which are inscribed a plethora of secrets, including one that will allow her to escape her curse and finally die. She offers to help recover Scott's wife in return for his assistance in finding the tablets.
Nothing is as it seems, obviously, and the distinction between good and evil gets blurred beyond recognition before the novel ends. The prose is so smooth that you're carried effortlessly from scene to scene, accepting the most outrageous events as almost ordinary. Lebbon has created an entire mythology here, including the death bearing Blights and the mysterious Skulls. I finished the book feeling very impressed but - and I didn't really recognize this until I was through - vaguely dissatisfied. It was as though there was an invisible veil that prevented me from completely immersing myself in the book, and it took a while for me to figure out what was causing it. We are introduced to Scott under crisis, and for the entire balance of the book, he is acting in crisis mode, under immense pressure. Although this certainly adds impetus to the plot, the reader never has a chance to get to know Scott or his wife as people before the supernatural conflict begins, and because of that, quite frankly, I didn't care particularly whether or not he ever rescued her from the minions of evil. It's not a fatal flaw by any means, because I only noticed this after I'd finished.
Dante's Girl by Natasha Rhodes, Solaris, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-666-X
Secrets in the Shadows by Jenna Black, Tor, 5/07, $7.99, ISBN 0-765-35716-X
These two books demonstrate how narrow the borders have become between horror fiction and paranormal romance (and urban fantasy as well, for that matter). The first Kayla Steele novel by Natasha Rhodes, who has previously done a couple of horror film tie-ins, introduces a tough street girl whose boyfriend was recently killed by supernatural forces, although that hasn't ended their relationship. Kayla holds down a mundane job while trying to learn enough magic to survive amongst the supernatural beings she must confront in order to discover her boyfriend's killer. Ghosts, werewolves, and other creatures of the night provide much of the supporting cast and a good deal of the plot. Rhodes uses a fairly light touch, considering the subject matter, with some dark humor and hints of sexual tension. This one is marketed somewhat ambiguously so you can read it as horror in the tradition of Nancy Collins' Sunglasses in the Dark, or as a paranormal romance. Jenna Black's second vampire novel, however, is clearly aimed at the romance market, and it's one of those novels that you'll hate if you don't care for the form, and enjoy if you do. There are bad vampires and there are good ones, the latter calling themselves somewhat melodramatically the Guardians of the Night, pursuing their quest of keeping us ordinary people safe. Caught between two worlds is Jules Gerard, a recently turned vampire who is tempted by the power of the dark side despite his commitment to refrain from preying on humans, and his friend and eventual lover, Hannah, a private detective who wants to help him come to terms with his new form of existence. As I've said in the past, I prefer my vampires to be evil, but if we accept that there can be good ones, this isn't a bad dark fantasy. It would be very difficult, however, to articulate a reason why the first is horror and the second is not.
Vintage by Steve Berman, Haworth, 2007, $12.95, ISBN 1-56023-631-0
My only previous experience of this writer was a collection of unmemorable short stories a while back. This new title is a short novel and a ghost story. The protagonist is a teenager, although I wouldn't call this a young adult novel. He is also gay, which provides an unusual twist or two. One night he encounters the ghost of a teenaged athlete who died fifty years earlier, a presence who will return in a series of increasingly emotional encounters. Already alienated from most of his contemporaries, the living boy must now confront the fact that he can communicate with the dead, and that one of them has become fixated on him. It is a ghost story and has some creepy scenes, but it's really not about the return of the dead as it is about the problems of being alone, psychologically if not physically, of accepting one's differences and deciding what is of value and what is not. I had a problem a couple of times with the dialogue, but otherwise the prose was smooth and convincing. The best of horror fiction is about more than just the monsters that threaten us physically; it is also about the monsters that lie within us, waiting to destroy us in more subtle ways. Berman addresses these forthrightly.
Universal Horrors: The Studio's
Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John
Brunas, McFarland, 2007, $55, ISBN 0-7864-2974-7
This is the second edition of this fascinating reference work, which examines each of the horror films from Universal Studios during the years when they produced such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, as well as a host of lesser but still interesting films. The authors cover 86 movies here, and each treatment is in much more depth than the usual movie guides. There's the usual information about cast and production crews, and a sprinkling of still shots, but the real attraction is the text, which is written in a lively, informative, and enthusiastic manner. Even such insignificant movies as The Missing Guest has a four page treatment, filled with anecdotes, plot summary, critique by the authors, and a sampling of contemporary movie reviews. The original edition appeared in 1990 and has been extensively revised for this new printing. The appendices include shorter takes on other films which contain some element of the fantastic but which the authors did not include as horror films, including a very interesting section on cliffhanger serials which also overlapped categories. There's a list of Oscar nominations and some notes about television appearances. All in all, a very attractively bound, well written survey that is both a useful reference tool and an entertaining reading experience. And yes, as it happens, I've seen almost all of these movies.
Mark of the Beast
by Rudyard Kipling, Gollancz,
£7.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07791-1
Rudyard Kipling is of course best known for his adventure stories like Kim and Captains Courageous, but he also wrote a substantial body of short fiction, including several classics in the horror genre. It's something of a stretch to include all fifty of the stories in this collection within that category, because many of them are minor, and a few aren't remotely horror, but the few real gems make this worthwhile even if you weren't interested in reading some of Kipling's work that has been generally unavailable.
The title story is one of many set in India, and it's probably his best known short story. An Englishman desecrates the temple of a minor god and is pursued by supernatural revenge ever after. Nearly as famous is "The Phantom Rickshaw", one of the most familiar ghost stories ever written. There are other ghost stories and tales of strange events, odd people, and exotic locations. Among the better stories are "The Man Who Would Be King", "They", "At the End of the Passage", and "Children of the Zodiac". Dover did a US edition of this collection in 2000.
Edgewise by Graham Masterton, Leisure,
5/07, $7.99, ISBN 0-8439-5426-4
I've been a fan of Graham Masterton's horror novels since The Manitou way back in 1975, and very rarely have I been disappointed by one of his novels. I was pulled into this story right away. Lily Blake, a recently divorced woman, is attacked in her home by two men who kidnap her children and attempt to burn her alive. She escapes death, but the FBI is unable to help her track down her ex-husband, who was absconded with the children. Desperate, she lets herself be talked into accompanying an unorthodox private detective to a meeting with a Native American who tells her that he can enlist the aid of a Wendigo to recover her children. Although she doesn't believe in the supernatural, something strange happens in the woods that night, and she figures it can do no harm. Her payment for this service is to be the restoration of a piece of sacred land, currently planned as the site of a new marina.
In due course, we discover that at least one of the abductors has been killed (and devoured), and that's when our suddenly sobered protagonist realizes that the Wendigo will kill everyone responsible, including the father of her children. She tries to call things off, even after setting in motion a chain of events which could in fact make the payment she promised possible. Once the husband is dead, Lily decides that she is under no obligation to fulfill her half of the bargain because she entered it without being told what was actually involved. While I understand her indignation, I'm not sure that I believe that a woman with two young children, who had just had very visceral evidence that supernatural forces could be sent after her, would so blithely take the risk without believing that she held some bargaining chip. It is particularly unsatisfying because she believed that she had already successfully negotiated the donation of the land to the tribe.
I also had a small problem with the structure of the novel. The two halves seem out of proportion. The first half is designed to set up the conflict between Lily and the forces she inadvertently unleashed, which is resolved in the second half. To do that, Masterton creates the situation which forces her to make that choice and shows the consequences of her act on the men who attacked her. But once it becomes clear that we're going to change course, it seems to take a very long time to move from that realization to the real story, which starts only after she has recovered her children. It wasn't skewed enough to significantly impair my ability to enjoy the story, but for about fifty pages I was growing increasingly impatient. All of the necessary groundwork was in place. Fortunately, middle grade Masterton is still better than high grade almost everyone else.
Conversations with the Devil by Jeff Rovin, Forge, 3/07, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30703-0
Although Jeff Rovin seems to spend most of his time writing in other people’s universes, occasionally he creates one of his own and, so far at least, I’ve found them consistently more interesting than his Tom Clancy tie-ins or his occasional techno-thriller. He’s at his best when the plot involves suspense through terror, mutant bats or reinvigorated saber tooth tigers, rather than deriving from spies, assassins, and international conspiracies. This time he invokes the supernatural. Sarah Lynch is a jaded psychologist who believes that good and evil are simply constructs of the human mind. When one of her patients commits suicide, she tries to recreate his final acts in an effort to understand his motivation, acts which included an attempt to conjure the devil. Her recreation is only too accurate because Satan appears and convinces her, for a time at least, that the Christian interpretation of the relationship between Heaven and Hell is distorted. A little bit slow at times, but on balance a satisfying thriller of the supernatural, and there is even some validity to Satan’s arguments.
The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman, Ballantine, 2006, $24.95, ISBN 0-345-46213-0
Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, Spiegel & Grau, 5/07, $24.95, ISBN 0-385-52106-2
Although ghost stories haven’t dominated supernatural fiction for a long time, they’ve been appearing steadily and, recently, seem to be experiencing a mild resurgence. Ghost stories have also enjoyed a legitimacy outside the genre that most horror fiction can only envy, from Charles Dickens to Edith Wharton to Henry James. These two new novels tend toward the literary side of supernatural fiction, and both of them are pretty good. They’re also both by authors I’ve never encountered previously. Goodman’s novel is set within an artist colony in upstate New York, on a famous estate whose history becomes an object of interest to some of the current residents. That history includes an effort to contact the spirits of the dead, murder, and mysterious disappearances. And the forces at work long ago have not departed. Very suspenseful, atmospheric, and craftily told. Stott’s is a first novel, and considerably more ambitious. A researcher writing a book about Sir Isaac Newton and alchemy dies under odd circumstances. Another writer is commissioned to finish the manuscript, and she moves into the dead woman’s lodgings, where she discovers that the ghosts of the past are, in one sense, still active in the present. Goodman’s novel is more traditional and in some ways more polished, but Stott isn’t far behind, and her story is by far the more intriguing of the two.
Wings of the Butterfly by John Urbancik, Bad Moon Books, 2007, no price or ISBN listed.
This novella is about a pack of shapeshifters, werewolves in fact. It's a pretty small pack, three in number, dominated by a sadistic, power crazed megalomaniac who reacts violently when he is challenged by a newcomer, a suave shifter who bests him physically and mentally, at least initially. Although this is artfully written, I disliked all of the characters so thoroughly that I never felt any attachment to them or the story. Published in a limited edition of three hundred.
Pretty Young Things by Dominic McDonagh, Telos, 2007, $8.95, ISBN 1-84583-045-8
It’s not a good idea to have a sexy vampire as your girlfriend. When Chelsea’s fellow undead chicks decide to munch of her significant other, she’s plenty pissed. This novella had the potential to be a clever, biting (no pun intended) satire, but it just never quite gets going. The bloodletting is so clinical that it’s not scary, the witticisms not steady enough to be effective, and I never really got involved with the characters. Nice try, but a misfire.
A Drop of Scarlet by Jemiah Jefferson, Leisure, 1/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5724-2
Jefferson’s latest vampire novel is far and away his most interesting and innovative. His vampire protagonist this time around is a medical researcher who becomes quite dismayed when the man she converts to vampirism as her consort/companion through the long ages presumably to come develops a mental instability that may be a physiological reaction rather than purely psychological. Presumably becoming one of the undead is traumatic enough in itself. She eventually develops a drug which seems to help him, but distribution of the remedy escapes her control and it proliferates, becoming an addictive substance for vampires. Her problems become greater when vampires from all over the world are drawn to her, seeking to find the source of this wonderful new substance. Not so smart for creatures who want to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and not too convenient for a vampire scientist who just wanted to be left alone with her lover. A bit flaccid toward the end; I expected a more rousing finish. Still good enough to be worth your time.
They Hunger by Scott Nicholson, Pinnacle, 4/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-7860-1713-9
Scott Nicholson’s sixth horror novel reverts to an old but still immensely popular device, the vampire story, but like Jemiah Johnson’s latest, he avoids producing just another variation of Bram Stoker or a vampire romance. Nicholson blends the undead with small town horror in ways similar to much of Stephen King’s work, although without the depth of characterization and detail that makes King so special. In this one, a nest of vampires has been dormant for generations, buried in a cave, but events transpire to awaken them in the present. Nicholson’s vampires are vicious and cunning, as you might expect, but not particularly intelligent, more like rampaging animals than people. They’re equipped with talons and capable of flying, but their ability to plan a campaign of attack or to preserve the secrecy of their existence is limited. As a counterpoint, there’s a human villain as well, and in many ways he’s nastier than the blood suckers. More action than suspense, but an exciting story.
Dead Souls by Michael Laimo, Leisure, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5760-3
Michael Laimo mixes elements of the haunted house, Satanism, and other horror tropes in his latest. The protagonist is a young man who is surprised to learn that he was been willed a house in Maine by a man he never met. Since he’s currently living in an unhappy situation, he pulls up roots and relocates, unaware of the fact that the previous owner was involved in mystical experiments designed to make him immortal. Much to his, but not the reader’s, surprise the spirit of the failed necromancer has somehow clung to the place, and the newcomer is to be come the instrument of its transformation. Nice development of atmosphere and suspense. I thought our hero was a bit slow on the uptake, but overall very enjoyable.
He Loves Me, He Loves Me Hot by Stephanie Rowe, Warner, 5/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61901-9
This is one of those novels I have trouble classifying. It has all the earmarks of a horror novel. Satan is involved, as well as one of his minions who has escaped and reformed. The protagonist is in fact a trusted confidant of Satan, but she becomes romantically involved with the rebel after the latter is pressured into an assassination plot against the lord of Hell. Although this could have been done for laughs, it’s not, and that edges into horror/supernatural for me instead of fantasy/supernatural. And, of course, it’s also a romance novel. Becca Gibbs and Nick Rawlings, the two main protagonists, are both interestingly drawn and their relationship is neither treacly nor oversimplified. There are moments of genuine suspense, some inventive extrapolation of the nature of Hell and its influence on the world of the living, and a pretty good ending. I’ve read two previous romances by this author, both involving weredragons, which were quite good, but I thought this was much better.
Touch of Madness by C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, Tor, 6/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-765-35663-5
The adventure which began in Touch of Evil continues in this, the latest in a new series of Anita Blake clones. We really need a new term for this subgenre, which has become large enough that it shouldn’t just be subsumed into paranormal romance or contemporary fantasy. There are vampires in most of them, including this one, but they’re not really vampire novels most of the time. Anyway, Kate Reilly has been pressured by a group of vampires who want her to find out who has been killing/destroying some of their group, but her investigation is hampered considerably because she herself is under investigation by more mundane authorities, who suspect that she is a murderer herself. The reader knows differently, of course, but we’re not allowed to testify. Kate is also having problems with her love life because she’s involved with a werewolf, and they naturally object to his getting involved in interspecies sex and are trying to convince him, one way or another, to break things off. And then there’s the real killer, who would like nothing better than to add Kate to his list of victims. There’s an awful lot going on and the pace gets a bit frantic at times, but you certainly won’t be bored, unless you’ve just read several similar books and get that sense of déjà vu all over again.
All Together Dead by Charlaine Harris, Ace, 5/07, $24.95, ISBN 0-441-01494-1
I’m tempted to say that Charlaine Harris is my favorite of the Anita Blake imitators, but the Sookie Stackhouse stories are sufficiently different that I’m not sure the label applies any more, if it ever did. Certainly there is some influence at work, particularly in the early volumes, but Harris has marked off her own little plot of the literary landscape and the ground has so far proved consistently fertile. This, the seventh in the series, is actually closer to Laurell Hamilton’s work than most of those that preceded it, because cocktail waitress Sookie is, like Blake, caught between two loves, one a vampire and one a werewolf. The vampire lover has proven himself unworthy and they have separated, but that doesn’t mean she can forget about vampire affairs forever, particularly with a large convocation coming. The hurricane that devastated the living in New Orleans has also wreaked havoc among the undead, and aggressive vampires from outside the area are hoping to take advantage of the power vacuum. Sookie must also decide how close she should get to Quinn, a shapeshifter, to whom she is powerfully drawn. I think the reason I enjoy this series so much is that Harris manages to instill her stories with the same tension and complexity as the best of the Anita Blake novels without getting so caught up in the angst of conflicting desires and motivations. She has a lighter touch without being lightweight.
13 Bullets by David Wellington, Three Rivers Press, 5/07, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-307-38143-9
There haven’t been proportionately as many book series in mainstream horror as in fantasy and SF because, I suspect in large part, one is more likely to expect the protagonists in a horror novel not to survive to return. That’s changing with paranormal romances, vampire detectives, and other trends which have muddied the border between fantasy and horror, a border that was never particularly fixed in the first place. So it’s a slight surprise to discover that David Wellington’s third horror novel is the first in a trilogy, but less so when you find out that the book is basically about a police officer who discovers that vampires are real.
Laura is a police officer whose life changes when she crosses paths with a man who devoted a large part of his life to tracking down, destroying, or imprisoning a group of vampires who were responsible for the death of his family. The twosome become a team when a murder investigation suggests the possibility that vampires are not only real but at large, a handful who survived the earlier campaign to exterminate them. They intend to rescue their leader, a master vampire whose power is so great that she could not be destroyed, but who has been held captive for years. Most of the novel was quite convincing, but I felt considerably let down by the closing chapters, and not just because the story is, of course, not yet complete. The master vampire, Justinia Malvern, just didn’t measure up. Presumably she’ll be back in the next book, and maybe she’ll prove more resourceful then.
Graphic Classics: H.P. Lovecraft, Eureka Productions, 2007, $11.95, ISBN 0-9746648-9-8
I’ve never seen the original version of this collection of graphic adaptations of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but the new edition has 75 new pages so even if you have, you’ll want to invest in the update. This series, if you’re not familiar with it, takes a classic author like Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, etc. and presents a selection of their work in graphic format, sometimes interpreted rather wildly, and each by a different graphic artist, in this case including work by Richard Corben, Simon Gane, and many authors. Sometimes the treatments are loyal; sometimes quite interpretative. Stories included here are “Herbert West: Reanimator”, which matches swatches of text with some very fine illustrations, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, which uses a much more comic book style, “The Shadow Out of Time”, in which unusual layout helps sustain the weird atmosphere of the story, “Sweet Ermengarde”, which appears to be an original work inspired by Lovecraft rather than one of his stories, and a few others. “The Terrible Old Man” is done in a style reminiscent of the painting, The Scream. Although I haven’t liked every entry in every volume of this series, it has been overall and continues to be a very impressive and interesting project.
The Freakshow by Bryan Smith, Leisure, 3/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5827-8
Ray Bradbury, Charles L. Grant, Richard Laymon, Thomas F. Monteleone, Charles G. Finney, and many others have reinterpreted circuses, carnivals, and amusement parks as hotbeds of actual weirdness and horror rather than just a facade, and now new writer Bryan Smith picks up the theme. The setting is a typical small town - in this case in rural Tennessee - filled with tensions of its own even before the arrival of a traveling carnival that is more than it seems. After a parade of horrible attacks, Smith offers a new twist, a kind of rationalization of what is happening that wasn't really convincing and comes as something of a letdown. I won't spoil any possible suspense by revealing it here. The real problem with writing a novel that so obviously has to be compared to some of the genre's classics is that it is almost inevitable that the newcomer will be found either disappointing in comparison, or derivative, or both. But at least Smith sets his sights high.