Playing with (Ecto)Power: A review of ZERO LIVES REMAINING by Adam Cesare

Published by Shock Totem Publications
Available Here

Videogames and horror can often go hand-in-hand. They’re both mediums that are often marginalized, scapegoated, or ignored as works of art. Adam Cesare clearly couldn’t care less, as his novella Zero Lives Remaining demonstrates the author’s unashamed love for both.

I could tell that Cesare was writing a book for himself—something fun, with just the right amount of nostalgia and love for the arcade scene of decades past. But in doing that, he’s also struck a cord with plenty of other readers—myself included—who have an interest and reverence for the digital masterpieces of arcade cabinet fame and for good old-fashioned supernatural horror. Continue reading “Playing with (Ecto)Power: A review of ZERO LIVES REMAINING by Adam Cesare”

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Hotels Are Creepy as Hell: A Review of John McNee’s PRINCE OF NIGHTMARES

Published by Blood Bound Books
Available Here
Review by Billy Lyons

I’ve always found hotels to be creepy as hell. Whenever I walk down an empty hotel corridor, I become very anxious when it’s time to make that 90 degree turn around a blind corner, because I expect to see the two little girls from The Shining standing at the other end, holding hands and asking me if I want to play with them. Forever and ever. And even when I do manage to make it safely into my room, it’s almost impossible to get comfortable. I can’t stop asking myself whether some poor bastard killed himself in the bathroom where I just brushed my teeth, or if someone was once found dead in the very same bed I’m supposed to sleep in.

Yet no matter how disturbing I find hotels to be, I don’t think my imagination has ever come up with any scenario as terrifying as those found in John McNee’s excellent novel, Prince of Nightmares. Continue reading “Hotels Are Creepy as Hell: A Review of John McNee’s PRINCE OF NIGHTMARES”

a black shape against the sun, a negative space: A review of YEAR’S BEST WEIRD FICTION VOLUME TWO

Edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly
Published by Undertow Publications
Available Here or on Amazon

My literary tastes trend toward the grindhouse. Schlock, melodrama, and spooky spectacle of the un-ironic variety. To continue to couch this in terms of the cinema, I prefer John Carpenter over David Lynch; Stuart Gordon over Lars von Trier. Whatever weird fiction might mean, I more often than not prefer it to mean horror, and within that association, I like monsters, creepy settings, unsettling imagery, and a little action. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy fiction that’s intellectual or cerebral. But I like what I read to strike a balance somewhere between fun and intellectual, with the slider closer to the former. It’s all art to me, man—whether it’s the rickety spookhouse ride or the ballet.

I just tend to have more fun at the spookhouse.

It is, however, with great pleasure that I devoured Year’s Best Fiction Volume Two edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly. Koja is a powerful writer and artist, and Kelly’s voluminous reading of horror and weird literature is award-worthy unto itself. Together, they’ve curated a book of sterling quality; diversity in stories, modes, and authorship alike. This is elite weird fiction—yes, even literary in its aspirations—done completely right.

Not every story was my bag of popcorn, of course. But what makes this collection great is that, even when I didn’t vibe with a particular style or narrative, I still recognized that the writing was masterful, and the imagery was haunting. This book has a little something for everyone, and, I’m not afraid to admit, my own tastes and preferences were challenged for the better.

I won’t mention all the stories I enjoyed in this collection (that would be most of them), but I’ll touch on a few. Keep in mind that the stories that I didn’t enjoy were not bad by any means, but were instead just not right for me.

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Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” was the perfect story to start the collection. It’s a crime noir yarn with a delirious creature-feature bent. Siobhan Carrol’s “Wendigo Nights” is equal parts The Thing and introspective supernatural meditation. Kima Jones’ “Nine” is a period piece that tells a story of dark juju and a patchwork family battling its influence. Caitlín R. Kiernan turns the monster slayer trope on its head in the pulpy (yes!) selection “Bus Fare.”

Rich Larson laughs off the standard mermaid tale in “The Air We Breathe is Stormy, Stormy” and explores a would-be father’s fear. Usman T. Malik writes about religious-civil conflict in a foreign-born Re-Animator take in “Resurrection Points.” Sarah Pinsker’s science fiction-character study “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is a subtle examination of identity and rural life (with more than a passing connection to my own dear Colorado).

These selections knocked my socks off—scratching that ghoulish horror itch, or conjuring thoughtful reflection. Again, even the stories not listed here—a couple of which were not to my taste—were still full of striking imagery and impression that lasted well beyond the time I spent reading them.

Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Two is an anthology that, despite its chronological-inspired name, will remain evergreen. I have not read Volume One, but I should. With Volume Three right around the corner, there’s no better time than to get caught up now.

Highly recommended for fans of dark speculative fiction, or for those looking for an entry point into the vast and growing body of high-quality weird work… and recommended for lowbrow horror junkies, too.

Behold the Vermin, Mine Own Heart: a review of Danger Slater’s I WILL ROT WITHOUT YOU

I Will Rot Without You by Danger Slater
Published by Fungasm Press/Eraserhead Press
Available February 8, 2016

Danger Slater wants to make you uncomfortable. And he’s damn good at it. I Will Rot Without You is not some metaphorical title. It very much describes what’s happening to its anxiety-ridden, sickly narrator. The rot in question is threefold: one, The City in which the story takes place is under threat from an apocalyptic storm. Two, the narrator’s crumbling apartment building is being overrun by a sentient hive-mind of malicious cockroaches and overgrown fungus. And three, the narrator has some sort of illness that starts in his hand and works its way up and out, until he’s literally falling apart.

The rot is also emotional, of course. Our narrator is a hot mess. Bills he can’t hope to pay are pouring out of his mailbox. His ex-girlfriend wants nothing to do with him. He’s a coward, penniless, and everything is collapsing around him. This book is profoundly humorous, horrifying, sad, and gross in equal measure. Not since Nick Cutter’s The Deep have I found a book so focused on body horror.

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This is the gross-out for the gross-out’s sake, so if bizarro body horror isn’t your cup of entrails, pass this one by. While I am not usually a fan of this type of writing, Slater’s sense of humor and on-the-nose characterization of both the narrator and his degenerate neighbors won me over. This is a book very much about slacker/urban anxiety. It’s all of your worst anxieties, fears, self-doubts, and sense of being overwhelmed externalized.

It’s also very, very funny. I found myself shaking my head or speaking out in protest at the gluttony of horrors described on each page. The plot is an upward curve of exponential degradation, heartbreak, and fungoid slime—but the story is fast-paced, the writing so vivid, and the humor so poignant and cutting that it never overstays its welcome. By the time the climax hits, you’ll be ready to watch it all drown. Cathartic, ridiculous, and emotionally satisfying, I Will Rot Without You is a funhouse ride through one man’s insecurities and broken heart.

Recommended for fans of bizarro, body horror, and for anybody who’s ever felt like they might fall apart. Literally.

I was provided an advance review copy, and the book will not be available until February 8th. Please check the author’s blog for information on when the book is available for purchase.

We’re the ones who shape their nightmares: A review of Orrin Grey’s Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts

Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts by Orrin Grey
Published by Word Horde
Available here

Do you like monsters, horror movies, old dark houses/haunted mansions, skeletons, kaiju, giallo films, Vincent Price, F.W. Murnau, spooks, specters, or ghosts?

Of course you do. And so does Orrin Grey. He likes them. He likes them a lot, so much so, that he’s built an impressive body of short stories that function not only as thrilling, entertaining reads, but also as masterfully-crafted love letters to the great (and countless not-so-great) celluloid monsters and horror film actors and filmmakers of the past and present.

While some might not appreciate cinematic storytelling in horror literature (as baffling as that is to me), I wholeheartedly embrace it as a reader of the form. Grey goes further than merely mimicking or taking inspiration from horror films—he directly and indirectly references a great number of them in these stories. But he incorporates both inspiration and reference in a way that doesn’t feel contrived, wink-laden, or forced. Sometimes, the characters are aware of the intersection of their present circumstances with those that exist in specific cultural artifacts and the broader horror zeitgeist. Combine this horror geek sentimentality with a voice that can deliver action, detail, pathos, and atmosphere in equal measures, and you’ve got one hell of a fun ride.

Yes, this book is fun to read. Grey’s storytelling is liberating and utterly unpretentious—a fresh breath of midnight air.

It’s difficult to pick just a few stories to highlight, as there’s not a single clunker in the book.

In “The Worm That Gnaws,” resurrection men pay a high price in their final dealing. Back-to-back vampire tales “The White Prince” and “Night’s Foul Bird” play with different concepts of the vampire in different classical settings. “Walpurgisnacht” is likely my favorite story of the collection, a simple occult-inspired tale of an elite’s goodbye party gone wrong, chock full of haunting imagery right out of a Roman Polanski or Kubrick film. “Red Church” drives us into slasher territory, but with nods to Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” and Kathe Koja’s The Cipher.

“Persistence of Vision” gets a mention for a PaintedMonsters_cover_001_FC_small-663x1024positive Ghostbusters 2 reference (it’s great, dammit!). Although heavily inspired by Pulse (a film that tried my patience [does my preference for Ghostbusters 2 over Pulse publicly confirm that I’m a philistine?]), this one stands on its own as a tale about despair amidst a ghostly apocalypse. “Strange Beast” is an example of how the found footage motif can be used to great effect, even in literature. It’s a tribute to both the best of the subgenre and to Japanese kaiju films.

“Painted Monsters” is the main feature here, more of a novella than a short, and functions both as a great final ride through Grey’s spook-filled imagination and as a coda for the rest of the book. It’s a tribute, among other things, to foreign horror films (in this case, specifically Mexican mid-century horror cinema), and contains elements from many other stories within this collection. It’s powerful in its symbolic burning of auteur ego and classic conventions to make way for the new, while simultaneously celebrating the very legacy it sets to the flame.

This is a writer having a good time, and his love for the tropes, characters, and settings here is infectious. Grey’s work is a wonderful counterpoint to the genre’s drift toward more vague, cerebral weird fiction. That’s not to say his stories lack intellectual reward or stylistic value. Far from it! But Grey is channeling pop-horror, niche-horror, and classic-horror in fun and exciting ways. Painted Monsters is one of the best books of the year, and Orrin Grey has cemented himself as one of my favorite contemporary writers.

Painted Monsters is a thoughtful, fun, and spooky ride through the horror culture of films and literature of the last hundred-plus years, filtered through the imagination of a man who sees the most ridiculous of rubber-suited monsters, the creakiest of old dark houses, the brightest of Technicolor bloods, the vampiest of horror cinema icons, and the foggiest of midnight graveyards—and smiles.

If skeletons could smile, that is.

Spectres and Emotion: A Review of V.H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone

Skein and Bone by V.H. Leslie
Published by Undertow Publications
www.undertowbooks.com
Amazon link

One of the great joys of being a fan of the horror and weird genres is the diversity emerging in our field—the diversity of authorship, voices, tones, and literary influences are not confined to operating within a specific channel of canonical reference or mode. Neither are the aspirations of these authors.

V.H. Leslie’s recent Skein and Bone demonstrates that a collection with the words “terrors”, “haunts”, and “shudders and delights” on the back cover can be something just as focused on the craft of image, the depth of characterization, and the greater questions of human frailty as it is on good scares, old dark houses, and cosmic dread.

Now, this is not a horror collection, but most stories are certainly weird.  All possess some element of the fantastic within them, but several present these elements as insubstantial, or possibly illusory. Other selections more outright tread the paths of the bizarre and the horrific. If you choose to read this book, understand that it represents Leslie’s impressive range as a writer—and that includes more conventionally-crafted tales (for lack of a better description) wherein the emphasis is on emotion, evocative imagery, and not on the fantastic or terrifying. Stories like “Time Keeping”, “Preservation”, “Senbazuru,” and even “The Quiet Room,” among others to varying degrees, have hints of the fantastic strewn about (or, in the case of “The Quiet Room”, conclude with such a reveal) but are much more subdued, and employ what sparse genre tropes they do as symbolic devices.

EvSkein-and-Bone3-sm-682x1024en in the stories with stronger horror-weird elements, the characters are more important than any spectre or bump in the night. But the shorts that I enjoyed the most combined characterization, existential and physical dread, and outright horror in equal measure: “Namesake”, “Skein and Bone”, “Ghost”, and “Making Room” (the opening stories of the book). I consider these the highlights of the collection, but that is more due to personal taste and expectations—I like me some monsters, mutants, ghosts, and scares. My literature professors could never quite train that out of me, despite their best efforts.

This is not a book I would recommend to readers looking for a purely horror or weird experience. I would recommend several of these selections to readers new to or cautious of weird literature, who may be interested in a transition from realistic (that’s a nicer word than “mundane”, isn’t it?) fiction to that which embraces elements of magical realism or the fantastic dark.

Every story in this collection contains vivid imagery, impressive writing, and emotional depth. If this collection does not feel consistent, it is not for a lack of quality—Leslie can make even the most seemingly-gray characters or settings striking and memorable over the course of a story—it is because she is an author who is clearly comfortable branching out into the different modes, who is comfortable challenging boundaries. This is Leslie’s CV, showing us she can bring depth and vivid characterization to any literary venue.

Here stories and characters are defined not by trope or conventions, but by brokenness, by struggle, by the phantasms of characters’ unrealistic expectations about their lives and the lives of others. V.H. Leslie is a fantastic writer, in both senses of the word.

A review of The Wanderer by Timothy J. Jarvis

Published by Perfect Edge
Available Here
Review by Tom Breen

In his introduction to the recent New York Review of Books edition of two horror novels by William Sloane, Stephen King writes that the books are “actual works of literature,” in that slightly embarrassed way fans of genre fiction have of explaining themselves to others.

“Actual literature” is code for things like “well-developed characters” and “non-formulaic plots,” and as much as genre fans may bridle at such distinctions, few of them have not experienced the rush of joy that accompanies the discovery of a book that can be safely recommended to one’s non-genre-reading friends. Look – characters! Accomplished prose! Literature!

This is approximately the sensation one feels when reading The Wanderer, Timothy J. Jarvis’ debut novel. A tricky, postmodern work that can function as a collection of short stories as easily as a science fiction novel, and is best received as both at the same time, it’s the sort of weird fiction that you’d give to someone to convert them to weird fiction.

Bracketed by a formidable critical apparatus including foreword, note on the text, afterword, end notes, and two appendices, the bulk of The Wanderer is purportedly a manuscript left behind by the mysteriously vanished British horror writer Simon Peterkin, which may be a final work of fiction or may be something much more terrifying than that.

The Wanderer

The framing device within this framing device is the memoir of an immortal man in the far distant future, but the narrative takes long detours that practically function as standalone tales. The overall effect is something like a modern, weird fiction version of The Decameron or, perhaps more appropriately given the book’s British setting, a horribly inverted Canterbury Tales, with the pilgrims relating experiences that have severed them irrevocably from the possibility of normal life.

One of the distinguishing features of “actual literature” is that it doesn’t rely on its readers to fill in narrative gaps with previously acquired knowledge about genre conventions, and in The Wanderer, Jarvis eschews the familiar tropes of supernatural fiction to craft a series of increasingly bizarre and memorable encounters with the inexplicable.

A (literally) underground society of elderly aficionados of graphic Punch & Judy shows; ordinary Londoners, somehow in the company of medieval knights, chasing dragons on Hampstead Heath; a pedestrian tunnel that leads to a tower containing a gruesome parody of family life; and the terrible secrets of Glasgow’s (quite real) Necropolis are just some of the elements Jarvis deploys in the course of his tale.

Throughout, the book conjures an atmosphere of estrangement: characters in contemporary London have experiences they can’t explain, but which are enough to sever them from the possibility of the kind of normal lives they once lived; the narrator, living far in the future, is isolated not only by his immunity to death, but by a longevity so extreme no one on earth has spoken his native English for millennia. This alienation is at the heart of great weird fiction, from the cosmic horror of Lovecraft to the Freudian torments of Aickman, a revelation that obliterates understanding rather than increasing it. The tree of knowledge is not that of life, as the poet observed, and this is more or less what Jarvis’ characters come to learn. If the purpose of genre fiction is to entertain, this is not genre fiction; it is, as Kafka said stories should be, “an axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Not that The Wanderer is dull. Jarvis can write a fight scene as well as anyone, and his scares are genuinely scary. Even better, a wry humor glints in many places (Peterkin’s career as a mostly obscure horror writer is deftly handled, with story titles like “The Glass Eye of the Stuffed and Mounted Bream that Hangs Over the Mantelpiece in the Old Stainer Place” tossed off casually), and Jarvis has a way with genuinely lovely, beautiful prose, as when one character rides a bus across London Bridge at night, “the lights of waterfront buildings reflected in the river below, gemstones strewn on a jeweller’s blackcloth.”

This is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel, and readers of weird fiction have much cause for celebration at the prospect of a second. In a corner of the literary world where “actual literature” is all too rare, Timothy Jarvis’ The Wanderer is the real thing.