Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Children of Chaos


I’ve heard a lot of good things about Greg Gifune’s writing for some time, but I am only now getting around to checking his work out. To be honest, I had wondered if some of the praise was undeserved hype, since Gifune’s other job is as an associate editor at Delirium Books, and in the incestuous little world of our genre, there is a tendency to pump up people who might be in a position to help a reviewer land a later sale. Judging by my first Gifune book, Children of Chaos, he is well worth the praise he has received.

In the late 1970s, three teenage boys returning home from a carnival come across a strangely scarred man, with the word “Chaos” tattooed on his back, camping in the woods. With fresh news of the murder of a young girl on their minds, they attack the man, killing him with a sword found in his bag, and disposing of his body. The guilt they feel is intensified when they learn the dead girl was killed by her father instead.

Adulthood doesn’t work out well for the trio. Jamie fulfilled his ambition to become a priest, but was defrocked after having sex with a minor. Philip became a writer, but by his 40s is without a publisher, divorced, and well on his way to alcoholism. Martin wanted to be an actor, but after years of wandering, became the leader of a strange cult in the Mexican desert.

Martin’s seriously ill mother wants to bring him on before she dies, and hires Martin to go after him. Despite his reluctance, Martin needs the money, and is soon on a strange and frightening journey toward the fate that was sealed for the three friends the day they killed the scarred man. Will he find redemption or damnation at the end of his quest?

As Gifune discusses in his afterward, the parallels in the story with Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness are pretty overt, and I was also put in mind of John Carpenter’s underrated film In The Mouth of Madness, but that may just be me. I don’t want to get all freshman English major on you, but Children of Chaos does echo many of heart of Darkness’ themes, most particularly duality, as explored in the conversations between Philip and Martin on the basic good or evil of mankind.

I found Children of Chaos to be a compelling work, one which managed to combine a fast-moving plot with genre-compatible chills and action with thoughtful ruminations on the nature of mankind. If, like me, you are late to Mr. Gifune’s books, Children of Chaos would be a good starting point. Highly recommended.
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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Story of Noichi the Blind


Chet Williamson’s short novella The Story of Noichi the Blind has an interesting fictional back story. It is presented as a Japanese folk tale, purchased in Japan by Williamson’s son, and written a century before by noted folklorist Lafcadio Hearn or one of his disciples. This is detailed in Williamson’s introduction, although the idea is discounted in the afterward by Hearn expert Dr. Alan Drew. Of course, Drew doesn’t exist, but it does add an amusing note to the story.

The story itself is written in the style of Hearn, and concerns a simple woodcutter named Noichi, who lives alone in the remote forest. Noichi is kind to all of the animals, who have in turn befriended him. One day Noichi happens upon Noriku, a servant at a brothel who has killed a samurai (by bizarre accident) and fled for her life. Noichi takes her in, and eventually marries her, and they are happy together.

The happiness ends when Noriku sickens and dies. The animals of the forest, when are so distressed to see their friend in pain, take action to make Noichi believe Noriku is still alive by inhabiting her body. The, er, interaction between Noichi and the late Noriku causes the corpse to give birth to a Tengu, a type of demon which wreaks havoc on the creatures of the forest.

The story is more interesting in concept than in execution. The "documentation" surrounding the authenticity of the story is better done than the story itself, which seems to try too hard to shock, with depictions of necrophilia and bestiality among other things. Ultimately, something of a letdown, although I imagine someone who is more of a fan of Japanese folk tales than I am might be more pleased with it.
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Friday, December 18, 2009

Freakshow


I struggle back from the near death of a severe cold to cop out and reprint something I wrote elsewhere. Oh, well at least it's a book that is well worth reading, Bryan Smith's Freakshow. If you actually read this site, you know that Smith (Deathbringer, Soultaker, House of Blood, Queen of Blood) is one of my favorite writers, and this is Smith's most gonzo, balls-to-the-wall action/horror novel. i guarantee you haven't read anything quite like it.

A carnival comes to a small Tennessee town. But this carnival is manned by strange creatures, who abduct the inhabitants of the town, savagely torture them, murder them, then replace them with clones under their control. They do this to one small town each year. The main characters are Mike and Helen, who in two parallel story lines fight for survival, and to end the carnival’s reign of terror.

Circuses and clowns have been used in horror before, but never to quite this much effect. It is filled with outstanding squirm-inducing thrills.

This isn’t a book for those looking for slow buildup, tepid pacing, and incremental character build-up. You are immediately dropped into the action, and it never slows down. In fact, I wondered at first if it was a sequel to an earlier book (it isn’t, although it does reference the author’s earlier work) since you are instantly in the thick of things. Most horror novels would start with the carnival’s arrival in the bucolic town, but when you start The Freakshow, the terror has already started, and most of the town’s residents are gone. The action is grisly, with scenes of incredible savagery, some sexual. The story really grabs you, you feel like one of the trapped townspeople, caught up and unable to escape. Although it should not be read by the squeamish, this book is highly recommended.

I'd love to see a sequel to this one.
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Welcome to the Jungle


Welcome To The Jungle, title taken from the classic Guns ‘n Roses song, is a parody of reality shows where four contestants are dropped into Los Angeles with one goal: Bring back the decapitated head of Axl Rose.

Heh. No, not really, because that would be cool. It is actually an incredibly bad “cannibal” movie, shot in the “found footage” style of The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. Except this movie sucks like a vacuum cleaner.

The ad slogan should have been "Get ready to root for the cannibals". 4 young people with the brains and personality of Paris Hilton go looking for Michael Rockefeller in cannibal country, and they are the stupidest, most obnoxious people on the planet. Example 1: they come to a road block where an Asian soldier with a machine gun asks to see their papers. They deal with it by calling him a "fucking zipperhead." Example 2: they read a government advisory about how robbers kill tourists after tricking them into stopping their car by placing a child in the road. They are told to just drive around. 2 minutes later they come to a child sitting at the edge of the road. What do they do? They stop. This would be a good movie to trick your most hated enemy into watching.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Favorite Horror Book of the Year

So Paul Tremblay issues this challenge to blog, tweet, facebook, or skywrite about your favorite horror book. I ignore such challenges. Except when he’s giving away free stuff, like in this case, and I willingly give up and play along. Plus Paul is the author of the excellent book The Little Sleep. (Note to those fans of The Little Sleep who e-mailed me. That is a positive review. I don’t understand why you would think otherwise.)

Picking my favorite was harder. Fortunately I have this blog to review the books I’ve read this year, but picking the best one wasn’t easy. I’m not going to fall into the whining “Books aren’t good anymore” because I enjoy most of what I read, but it was hard to pick a standout horror book one that was head and shoulders above the rest. At least, until I got back to March and realized Ronald Kelly’s Midnight Grinding and Other Twilight Terrors was published this year. It is a massive collection of Ron’s short work from Cemetery Dance, and filled with some of the best southern-fried writing you’ll ever come across. (His shorter collection The Sick Stuff was a contender, too, but I went with the longer, more diverse volume. A hard call, though.)

So there you have it.
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Money Shot


Here’s a reworked reprint of something I wrote a while back at another location. It’s a review of the Hard Case Crime release of Money Shot, by Christa Faust. The field of gritty crime novels is often something of a boys’ club, and I suppose there is a predisposition to believe testosterone is necessary to write a story about tough guys (and gals). Money Shot completely disproves that.

The protagonist of Money Shot is a former porn actress named Angel Dare, now semi-retired and running an adult modeling agency. The McGuffin of the story is a briefcase of money that a group of very bad guys believe is in Angel’s possession. In the course of trying to recover it, she is kidnapped, beaten, raped, tortured, shot, and left for dead. Surviving these eventss, she goes on a mission through the sex-trade underworld to get even with the ones responsible.

Angel Dare is a great character. She is resourceful and pragmatic, and doesn’t waste time on philosophical debate when she has an opportunity for revenge. Faust’s writing is dynamic, and she throws a couple of unseen plot twists at you, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of Angel Dare. For those with sensitive dispositions, the story does take place in the porn industry, and doesn’t shy away from the realities of the business.

The Hard Case Crime series has been one of my favorite imprints since its inception. Of the books I’ve read from it (forty or so), there has been only one I didn’t like, a heckuva batting average. Money Shot is my favorite from the series. If you have any interest at all in crime novels, please give this one a try. It’s a wild ride. Besides, just look at that cover. How can you resist?
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Monday, December 7, 2009

Shadows Over Florida


Here’s an interesting concept: A reference book that details the history of horror and horror-related events covering a state. Shadows Over Florida, by David and Scott T. Goudsward, is such a book, detailing the history of the dark side of the Sunshine State.

First thing to think about, you don’t evaluate a reference book the way you do a novel, so I devised a test. I came up with a list of ten reasonably obscure horror connections to Florida from my own feeble brain, and decided if the book hit on seven of them, I’d give it a passing grade. To my surprise, they were ten for ten, which means that somewhere there is another poor soul who watched Absolute Zero. I don’t hold myself out as an expert on the subject, but I do know enough trivia to make that an impressive achievement.

The book is ordered alphabetically by location, and I was pleased to see there are two indices, one for movies and television shows, and one for authors. I learned a lot from the book, from important things such as Jacksonville could have become the capitol of the film industry instead of Hollywood, if there hadn’t been local opposition, to the obscure yet intriguing, for example there is a Christian anti-drug movie that features a mutant biker vampire were-turkey.* There is quite a lot about the legendary Herschell Gordon Lewis, current B-movie maven Joel D. Wynkoop and many other facts. I didn’t realize H.P. Lovecraft had such a close connection to the state.

If you are a horror fan who lives in Florida or plans to visit it, you have to have this book. If you don’t plan to visit the Gulf Coast, I think you would enjoy it anyway. The book can be ordered through Amazon. It is an attractive trade paperback, reasonably priced, and I highly recommend it.

For those of you further up the East Coast, the Goudswards have previously published a similar book, Shadows Over New England.

Now I’m off to look for a movie about a mutant biker vampire were-turkey.

*That has to be awful. I am determined to see it.
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We Now Resume Our Regular Broadcasting Schedule

My hard drive has been replaced (again), and I am back, a little poorer and a little crankier, but who will notice? We will now resume our regular schedule of inanities. When I picked up my computer from the stoner at Best Buy, we had this exchange:

Stoner: We put in a Western Digital drive this time.
Me: Uh, okay. Good, I guess.
Stoner: Your problem was the last time you replaced your drive you put in one of those piece of crap Seagate drives. Seagate makes nothing but junk, and if you go that way, you can expect problems.
Me: You were the one who put in the Seagate drive.
Stoner: Ah. Oh. How about I knock ten dollars off the price?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Intermittent Blog Is Intermittent

It's the holiday season and you know what that means: my hard drive has died. For the third year in a row. So, until it is repaired/replaced, posting here will be greatly reduced. You will have to suffer without it, I'm afraid, as there will not be the planned "10 Greatest Christmas Novels Featuring a Giant Reptile" or "10 Greatest Movies In Which You See Santa Claus Full Monty Naked." Maybe next year. But don't despair, posting will return to normal levels just as soon as the stoners at Best Buy get the drive changed. Until then Dead In The South isn't truly gone, it lives on inside of each of us. Sort of like cancer.
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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Yellow Medicine


There is some substantial overlap between what we think of as horror fiction and crime fiction. I’m not talking about the genteel parlor mysteries like Murder, She Wrote, but about the grim, dark dramas of James Ellroy, Ray Banks, Ken Bruen and the like. There are many authors today who write or have written in both fields, and done it well. The sometimes bleak themes used suit both genres well.

This is, of course, my justification for why you are going to read about the occasional crime novel/film here. You guys pay a lot for this site, I want to make sure you’re happy.

The standard conception of the protagonist of a detective or crime novel, perhaps slightly sullied by the milieu in which he is forced to live, but with a moral code that is unshakeable, and a passion to see justice done no matter what the cost. The protagonist of Anthony Neil Smith’s novel Yellow Medicine is definitely not that person.

Billy Lafitte is a cop, the kind that doesn’t mind shaking down a criminal for a little cash, offering protection to drug dealers for a cut of the profits, or pressuring young girls into sex in exchange for overlooking some indiscretion, and getting off on using the power he has over citizens. These activities have cost him. His excesses in the wake of Katrina cost him his job with the New Orleans police force (although only a small part of his corruption was uncovered), his home and his family. Fortunately for him, his wife reached out to her brother, the sheriff of Yellow County, Minnesota, and got Billy a new job, one he settles into comfortably, cultivating a string of meth labs for extra cash. The only change for him is he hates Minnesota, and is borderline suicidal.

He has also fallen in love with a young woman named Drew, who plays in a local psychobilly band. Drew doesn’t love him, but she needs him for favors, and when her dealer boyfriend gets into a jam, she comes to Billy for help. This is where it all begins to unravel for Billy. It seems an outside organization is moving in on the rural Minnesota meth network, one that is powerful and scary. Billy is the main obstacle in their path, and soon he is finding heads severed with his knife, and everyone around him is in danger.

Billy is over his head and he knows it. Trouble is, he’s been so dirty for so long it is difficult for him to get help from the law enforcement agencies he needs. There is an FBI agent who may or may not be on his side, and his straight-arrow ex-brother-in-law, but if Billy is going to get out of this, he will have to figure it out for himself.

This is not the kind of mystery read by your grandmother. It is grim and bleak, and there is no easy resolution. The book is told from the first person point of view of Lafitte himself, which means you are along for the ride with a cop you probably won’t like that well. However, for those that can handle it, this is a remarkably engrossing book. Smith, the editor of the well-respected Plots With Guns, has crafted an assured crime classic, and told a story you can’t put down, and won’t find easy to forget.

My one complaint would be with the opening chapter. Much of the book is actually a flashback, and the beginning gives away a lot of information about the ultimate, mostly tragic, fates of many of the characters. This is a recognized literary device, and it doesn’t really detract from the book, but I wouldn’t have revealed so much up front. Which is why, of course, I’m a pitiful blogger and Mr. Smith looks to be well on his way to becoming one of the great crime authors.
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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Horror News

No, I don't have any news, that is the name of a new (to me) website, located at www.horrornews.net. Good looking site, check it out.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Under The Dome


For horror readers of my generation, it’s hard to find much fault with Stephen King. He didn’t create horror, but his success certainly was the impetus and inspiration for a lot of the horror published over the last thirty years. Also his books such as Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and The Stand are classics of the genre. Some readers feel his writing has fallen off in recent years, but I think his later work such as Duma Key holds up with the best of his output. His latest release is Under The Dome.

The book, which is social commentary with a horror background, is something King has been working on off and on in various forms for over thirty years. It is set in the fictional Maine town of Chester’s Mill (not far from Castle Rock, so you would think the residents would have a certain familiarity with strange events), where an impenetrable, invisible dome suddenly descends, to the immediate misfortune of a woodchuck and a passenger plane, and long term for everyone trapped inside. Those trapped inside include (there is a cast of characters at the front of the book, which is invaluable considering the number of people who are featured in the story) Dale Barbara, a former Army officer who has become an itinerant short-order cook after being involved in something in Iraq which compelled him to leave the Army; Andy Sanders, the town’s First Selectman, dim-witted and amiable, and easily led; Big Jim Rennie, the Machiavellian Second Selectman, who actually runs the town and has some dark secrets, Junior Rennie, Big Jim’s sociopathic son, and Julia Shumway, publisher of the town newspaper.

Although the dome is the central event of the novel, it is something of a MacGuffin for the social commentary that is really at the heart of the book. If the residents can’t get out, their days are numbered due to the steady buildup of pollutants in the atmosphere, an obvious depiction of environmental concerns. The more cohesive thread running through the book involves the reaction of the individuals to the crisis. Big Jim Rennie sees it as an opportunity to seize more power, and to use it for personal gain. A de facto police state is quickly in place, and Rennie uses fear to sway the citizens to his side. Although the U.S. government wants Barbara to take over, they have steadily decreasing influence inside the dome.

King has made no bones about the fact that Sanders and Rennie are small town analogues of George W. Bush and Dick Chaney, and it is both realistic and disturbing to see how easily people fall sway to demagoguery. Crisis does not always bring out the best in us. There are obvious overtones of The Lord of the Flies, albeit it with adults reverting to savagery rather than children.

As is often the case with King’s work, the ending is the weakest part of the book, and, while the dome is explained, that is not terribly compelling either. But both of these things are secondary concerns. The book looks at people trapped in a giant fishbowl, with the pressure turned up, and in that King equals the successes of the past.

As everyone has mentioned, this is a long book, clocking in at 1,074 pages. Is it too long? In my opinion, a good book is rarely too long, and a bad book is never short enough. Under the Dome is good enough to give me a couple of late nights reading the thing, and if you are a Stephen King fan, it shouldn’t disappoint you.
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Monday, November 23, 2009

Loch Ness Terror


You’ve got to admire a movie that titles itself Loch Ness Terror and mostly takes place in Lake Superior (the original title was Beyond Loch Ness, and that would be more accurate, since Lake Superior is certainly beyond Scotland). I guess it doesn’t matter, since the lake near Vancouver which serves as bock Loch Ness and Lake Superior for the film doesn’t look like either one of them.

Before we start, if you want to know the truth about what lurks in Loch Ness, click here. Just don’t blame me if the disillusionment is too much to bear.

The SyFy Channel must use a customized script element generator to produce their creature features. Here you have the prologue scene where a boy watches a parent killed by a monster, inspiring him to grow up to be a monster hunter (if the monsters realized how vindictive humans are, they wouldn’t leave any uneaten rugrats behind when they attack), the remote island used as a breeding ground for the creature where a group of dimwitted teens get marooned, and the emo kid who has lost his girlfriend to the rich dirtbag who inevitably turns out to be a loser. I guess if something comes close to being arguably competent, keep doing it.

Brian Krause plays the traumatized kid who grows up to be a fearless Nessie hunter, and the only other recognizable face is the late Don S. Davis, who played General Hammond on Stargate SG-1. The plot goes something like Nessie moves from Loch Ness to Lake Superios by way of underwater tunnels (!) and shows up to eat people and breed. There doesn’t seem to be a Mr. Nessie around, but maybe there doesn’t have to be. There is the requisite, albeit it brief, hesitation of law enforcement to believe people are being eaten by a plesiosaur (“It could be an alligator,” they say, their breath smoking in the frigid air.) and then the surviving cast gets to monster killin’. There is some hokum about the creatures being blind when they are around magnets for some reason, but it all works out well in the end, largely because aquatic dinosaurs are apparently intensely flammable.

The CGI creatures are actually decent by SyFy standards (which means they look like they come from a high-end computer game, rather than a low-end one) although when they switch back and forth between CGI and puppets, the two don’t look remotely like the same creature. The baby dinosaurs actually look pretty cute in their CGI version, except when they are pulling out someone’s entrails.

By all reasonable artistic standards, this is a pretty bad movie, but by SyFy giant critter movie standards, it isn’t that bad, which I suppose is damning with faint praise, or maybe praising with faint damnation. If you are the type of person that enjoys this type of movie, you will probably enjoy this one. We did.
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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pod of Horror #57

The latest Pod Of Horror, the can't miss podcast of the genre, is now available for listening or download. In addition to Mark Justice and the legendary Call of Kalanta, in this edition Mark talks with Edward Lee, Mike Oliveri, and Michael Vance. A new feature called Moonshine Matinee with Jason Keene debuts. I know Jason a little from the internetz, and he's a standup guy, so that will be well worth checking out. Give it a listen, or be left wondering what everyone is talking about around the water cooler at work tomorrow.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Under The Dome & On The Screen


If you haven't finished reading Stephen King's new 1074-page novel Under The Dome, you might want to hurry up. Empire Online reports that King and little known filmmaker Steven Spielberg are already working to develop a TV adaptation. With Spielberg's involvement in the project it would seem like this would be a done deal, but the two have been working on The Talisman for many years and we haven't seen it yet.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Pointless Remake, But Hey...


According to The Hollywood Reporter, Marti Noxon, formerly a writer/producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, has been hired to write the script for an upcoming remake of the 1985 horror comedy Fright Night. I'm not one of those who had an aneurysm every time a movie is remade, but this does seem a little pointless, since there is nothing really wrong with the original. The article implies the main purpose will be to "modernize the effects" but I don't remember that many effects in the original, anyway. I wish them luck (whether you like it or not, when a horror movie is successful, it makes it that much easier to get another horror film made) but, as with the recent remake of The Stepfather, you would do just as well to rent the original.
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Friday, November 13, 2009

Independence Day 2: More Independentier

According to Total Film, Roland Emmerich is planning on a sequel to 1996's Independence Day. I'm betting it kicks off when the aliens steal a copy of Norton Anti-Virus.
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Other People Make Lists, Too

Rabid Fox over at Wag The Fox has put together a list of his Top Five Comedic Horror Movies. Since I really can't disagree with any of his choices, this saves me from doing my own. It's a good list, so check it out. And just for the record, I do feel Ghostbusters is a horror movie. its got a giant Pilsbury Dough Boy rampaging through a city. What's more horror than that? :-)
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Monday, November 9, 2009

Anaconda 3: Offspring


I’m sure some of you have walked down the aisles of your local video store and observed the boxcover for Anaconda III: Offspring. I’m also sure two thoughts popped into your head: “That has got to be a crappy excuse for a movie.” and “I bet that weirdo from Dead in the South watches this.” You are very perceptive people.

The first Anaconda movie was, IMO, a fun B-movie flick, good enough to overlook the casting of The Most Annoying Actor in Show Business (Owen Wilson). The sequel, while lacking the star power of the first cast, was much better than expected, with the scene where the snake approaches the paralyzed guy being pretty shudder-worthy. But both movies were lacking in something, and it becomes obvious after watching the third installment: They were entirely Hasslehoff-free. Anaconda III does not repeat that mistake.

At the conclusion of the second Anaconda, all the giant snakes were dead, and the blood orchids which could cure cancer and Alzheimer’s, end world hunger and give everyone a constant erection were gone also. When Anacondas III opens, an evil pharmaceutical company owner (John Rhys-Davies) has set up a secret plant in some foreign yet unnamed country (it was filmed in Romania, giving hope we may one day see the sure classic Anaconda vs. Dracula) to synthesize the blood orchid extract. The company has been giving the extract to two anacondas, because that is absolutely the stupidest thing you could do, and they have grown to giant size. The snakes are cared for by a herpetologist (Crystal Allen) who warns everyone there is about to be a catastrophe, but of course everyone ignores her.

Naturally, the snakes break out, and head into the countryside to eat as many people as possible and for the pregnant female (of course) to give birth. When asked why they would breed a giant snake and then get it pregnant, the scientist’s reply is more or less Eh, we wanted to see what would happen. And you scoff at the idea the Large Hadron Collider is going to kill us all.

Fortunately, there is a tram of professional snake-hunting mercenaries nearby, and they are immediately called in and quickly eaten. The evil company also hires Hammet (the Hasslehoff) to come and run the operation. Hammet is evil, since we see him selling a rhino horn before he goes after the snakes, and seems to drink a lot. I wanted to give Hasslehoff a break, but Jeebus, this is one poorly acted performance.

Most of the cast is eaten, although the one black guy lasts longer than most black characters do in this kind of movie. Eventually snakes explode and burst into flames and there is an open-ended finale (Anaconda 4: Trail of Blood was shot back-to-back with this one and will take up where this movie leaves off).

I can’t really recommend this one, even to the people who watch this sort of thing. As giant snake movies go, it’s no Boa vs. Python.

There is one awesomely great line in the movie. While tracking the giant snake*, Hasslehoff utters this “Where there is blood…there is…more blood.” I mean, really, whiskey tango foxtrot?

* How hard could it be to track two giant snakes which weigh eleventy million pounds apiece? For Pete’s sake, they knock over trees.
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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Long Horn, Big Shaggy


Another day I'm too lazy to post anything new, so another reprint. I did change two words, so there is new content. Heh.


As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for weird westerns. And one of the newer authors I’m growing to appreciate is the Sage of Nova Scotia, Steve Vernon, whose story was one of the highlights of the excellent collection, A Dark and Deadly Valley. Therefore, when I heard the novella Long Horn, Big Shaggy fit the description of the sub-genre and was about to go out of print, I ordered it immediately.

To say that Long Horn, Big Shaggy is a weird western underestimates what weird means. It is the story of a cowboy, Jonah, who gets ambushed after stealing a horse, shot through the head, and killed. That’s the beginning for him. He is then re-animated by an old prospector, who is himself a re-animated dead man. In fact, almost everyone in the story fits that description. There follows a truly wild tale in which Jonah gets caught in the middle between two rivals, each of whom has killed the other, sometimes more than once.

If there is a flaw to the story, it is that Vernon concentrates too much on the weird and the gore, and not enough on why all this is happening. But Vernon’s sheer exuberance and adept turns of phrase carry you right along. I particularly was fond of the descriptive name of an undead horse, the “carrion stallion.” Recommended.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tanglewood


On a slow day, reprinting something from an earlier blog:

A couple of years back, Ronald Kelly (The Sick Stuff, Midnight Grinding & Other Twilight Terrors, Hell Hollow) began a triumphant return to horror after too long an absence, and Tanglewood was his first new material in some years. It is a short chapbook (about twenty pages) produced by Cemetery Dance, nicely executed, and well worth seeking out. Due to its brevity, I can't go into too much depth about the story without giving away important plot points, but Tanglewood is a nice, creepy little story about a guy who takes the wrong shortcut, and finds mystery and terror, and how he deals with it. One more bit of Kelly's work to whet the appetite while waiting for the forthcoming reprinting of his earlier work.
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

The 14 Best Horror Short Stories of All Time!

As always, these are actually my favorite short stories of all time rather than the greatest. You don’t climb to the top of the heap of bloggers by observing truth in advertising.

If you are a regular blog reader (and if you are, thank you) you know I like lists, and if you aren’t, look at the sidebar and you’ll see. For some time, I’ve been planning a list of short stories to accompany the other poorly-received lists, but it was too daunting a task, as there are too many to choose from and the list varies from moment to moment. It’s also too important, as short stories have formed the true backbone of the horror genre. Recently friends began bugging me to produce one, so I figured “What do I have to lose?” So here it is.

The ground rules first. These are my own opinions, and you are free (and encouraged) to disagree, and to do so in the comments. Please feel free to give vent to any vitriol you may feel, although once again, “dipshit” has become a way too overused epithet. To keep the list somewhat manageable, and to keep my head from exploding, I limited the stories to one per author, so it wouldn’t be a list of the best Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft stories, or every short piece T.E.D. Klein has written. I also made arbitrary judgments on novellas. Instead of using word length measurements, if a novella “felt” like a short novel rather than a long short story, it was disqualified. Therefore, no appearance by “The Mist”, one of my favorites.

Why 14 stories instead of 10? This was as far down as I could cull it, so I hedged my bets and cheated.

1. “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft. In my mind, this is one of the few stories that continues to give me chills. I re-read it every year in October.
2. “Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner. I’ve spoken of my admiration for Wagner before, and this is probably his best.
3. “Who Goes There?” by Don A Stuart (John W. Campbell, Jr.). The basis for the movies The Thing From Another World and The Thing, I read it at a young age, and its central theme of paranoia about the true identity of those around you continues to resonate.
4. “Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe Lansdale. Lansdale has written a number of great short stories, but this tale of two young rednecks who should have watched The Night of the Living Dead is his best.
5. “Nightcrawlers” by Robert R. Mccammon. “Something Passed By” was a close second, but I love this story of a man truly haunted by the war in Vietnam, and the unlucky diner patrons who get to share that with him. “Charlie’s in the light!”
6. “The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson was the great master of sea-swept horror, and this is probably his best short story.
7. “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” by Fritz Leiber. Leiber is probably best remembered as a science fiction author, but he wrote in a number of genres, and his forays into horror are second to none. This story of an artist’s model who is a psychic vampire is my favorite.
8. “The Road Virus Heads North” by Stephen King. King has written a lot of great stories, and most people would pick one of his early works as his best, But this story of a man doomed by the purchase of an ever-changing painting sticks with me. I’ll always wonder what was in the paintings that were burned.
9. “The Ash-Tree” by M.R. James. A classic story from a nearly forgotten writer.
10. ‘The White People” by Arthur Machen. The dark sage of Wales framed this story as the diary of a young girl. Probably one of the most influential horror stories ever written.
11. “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. The world around us as the source of menace. One of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorites.
12. “The Yellow Sign”, by Robert W. Chambers. The centerpiece of Chambers’ great collection of short stories The King in Yellow shows how horror can come from that which is not explained. (The sign itself is never described, and it’s effects are only loosely explained.)
13. “Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein. Any of the stories from the far-less-than-prolific Klein that were published in Dark Gods (a must-read) or the story that became his novel The Ceremonies, “The Events at Poroth’s Farm” would qualify, but this is marginally my favorite of them. Beware the Tcho-Tcho.
14. "Pigeons From Hell" by Robert E. Howard. The creator of Conan wrote some fine horror stories, and this is generally seen as his best.


If you haven’t read any of these, and you are a fan of horror, I suggest you seek them out. Then come back and tell me how wrong I am.
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Little Sleep


Mark Genevich is a Boston private investigator, who gets a strange case. A young woman, a local celebrity who has been on American Idol, comes to his office to hire him – to find her missing fingers. Apparently, her fingers were taken while she slept and replacements left behind. To prove this, she removed the bandages from around her fingers to show him the stitches holding her substitute fingers to her hands. Shockingly, her story seems to be true.

However, Genevich isn’t an ordinary shamus. An accident years before left him with unrepairable injuries. A heavy beard hides the scars on his face, but more importantly he has brain injuries which have left him narcoleptic. Although people think of narcolepsy as a comical disease, with sufferers falling asleep at the drop of a hat, it causes hypnagogic hallucinations which the sufferer cannot tell from reality. When a strange event occurs, Genevich must figure out how much of it is true, and how much of it was a synaptic misfire in his brain.

In this case, when he comes to he finds a folder with lewd photos of the woman in question on his desk. He concludes she must have hired him to find who is behind the extortion and begins to investigate accordingly.

Some readers of mysteries want the written version of a CLUE game, where a dogged, brilliant investigator unravels clues until everything is revealed. These readers may not find The Little Sleep to their liking. The book is far more about Genevich’s struggle to make it through his disability than about Miss Marple figuring out who killed the vicar in the cloakroom.

Although literature has a long history of unreliable narrators, it is less common in books written in the English language. We don’t want to read books that seem to trick us. The Little Sleep not only has a narrator who is unreliable to readers, but to himself as well. At the end of the book, it is still impossible to tell what was real and what was hallucination.

I’m involved in a local reading book (one book a month) and got The Little Sleep added to the schedule. Reaction was sharply divided. Some people were angry with the false leads Genevich followed due to his problem and the fact that he is not, by traditional standards, a particularly good detective. I respectfully suggest they missed the point. We’ve read/heard/seen hundreds of stories where an intrepid gumshoe tracks down a rich man’s missing daughter. This book takes on a deeper issue, Genevich’s fight to live in a world his own mind can no longer process.

It may not be for everyone, and some may find it a challenging read, but The Little Sleep is a superlative book, due to the undeniable skill of Paul Tremblay. He writes so well the book never falls into the trap of being a gimmick, and makes you feel the frustration of the main character trying to be as normal a human being as possible. There is also a good deal of wry humor that keeps the book from being overly glum. I would recommend The Little Sleep to anyone who enjoys horror (what could be more horrible than being betrayed by your own mind?), mysteries, or just anyone who likes a well written book.

Tremblay has announced there will be further adventures of Genevich. I’m very skeptical whether this can be sustained over multiple books, but Tremblay is so talented I’ll definitely give it a shot. {Edit} If I had not been too lazy to do any research, I would have known the name of the sequel is No Sleep Till Wonderland, and will be out in February 2010.

I have to be honest, and admit that I hate the title of The Little Sleep.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Free Stephen King Story

If you can't wait for Under the Dome to be released, the New Yorker has the King story "Premium Harmony" up on their site. Check it out.
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Monday, November 2, 2009

Primitive


The worst day of David Spires life started with a phone call from daycare: His stepson had attacked another boy and then been killed. That’s bad enough, but this is only the start of the bad news, as the world is engulfed in brutal acts of violence. A chemical/biological agent has been released which causes people to revert to their primitive “Neanderthal” nature, and their instinct is to kill any of the few who are resistant to the change. David has to flee Los Angeles with his wife, daughter, and a motley crew of fellow survivors, to try to find safe harbor from the primitives.

There is an additional complication: It seems ancient man worshipped a demonic creature named Hanbi. With the extinction of the Neanderthals, Hanbi faded from the collective conscience, but with the return of them, in greater numbers than ever before, not only has the worship of Hanbi made a comeback, it has caused a physical reappearance of the demon. Not only will David and his people have to struggle for survival against the primitives, they must find a way to destroy a supernatural creature from the past – one with the power to raise the dead.

J.F. Gonzalez has written good books before (Survivor, Shapeshifter, the wonderful B-movie Clickers and Clickers II), but he takes his writing to new heights here. Primitive is the most compulsorily readable thing he’s done, at least that I’ve read. His characters are written so as to be real to the reader, and you feel the tenseness as they struggle to survive, and the angst that goes with hard moral choices they must make.

Post-apocalyptic fiction has been a staple of the horror genre for a long time. Stephen King’s The Stand is rightly considered a classic, and many people count Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song among their favorites. Does Primitive rate a place with these immortal books? Yes, with a small caveat.

The other books mentioned were written at a time when horror novels were often of epic length (one version of The Stand is over 1100 pages long). Today’s market is different, and the upper limit for novels has become 300 pages, which is the length of Primitive, give or take a couple of pages. As good as it is, there are tantalizing subplot possibilities that are not explored. There is some mystery about the military officer Wesley, the question of how some people are still reverting months after the original epidemic, and a lot of information about the cause of the catastrophe and just why some people are immune. I have no inside knowledge as to whether Gonzalez would have liked to have written a longer version of Primitive, but I feel there could have been a lot more to it if he had chosen to do so, and I would have like to have read it.

This criticism shouldn’t be construed as taking anything away from the book that was published. Primitive is a compelling book, and shows a continuing progression of Gonzalez’ talents. If quality still matters in the genre, it should be very successful, and I would recommend you give it a try. Primitive is available from Delirium Books.
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Saturday, October 31, 2009

The V Word



A lot of people were critical of the two year run of Showtime’s series Masters of Horror, but for the most part, I enjoyed it. Like all anthology series, the lack of a permanent cast or writing stable leads to a lot of inconsistency, and some of the one hour episodes were amazingly bad. But overall I would give the series a pass. I purchased the complete run in individual releases, since the producers of the series guaranteed it would never be released as season sets. Those sets look nice, too.

Ultimately, a horror anthology series, no matter how original it wants to be perceived, takes a shot at that most popular of dark creatures, the vampire, and for Masters of Horror, that shot came in the middle of the second series with the episode The V Word, written by series creator Mick Garris and directed by Ernest Dickerson. I assume the title is a play on the Showtime lesbian drama The L Word.

Kerry (Arjay Smith) and Justin (Brandon Nadon) are two high school friends, more of the rabid gamer type than belonging to the cool crowd. They decide to seek excitement by sneaking into a funeral home at night to see the body of one of their dead classmates. If you are a horror movie watcher, you know what a terrible idea this is. Once they make it into the mortuary, they find they are not alone, although strictly speaking they are the only living things in the building. Apparently of former teacher of theirs, Mr. Chaney (Michael Ironside), fired for inappropriate relations with students is there in a state of un-death. This not only poses terminal consequences for Arjay and Justin, but it brings danger to their families, as well.

The first half of the show is the two boys sneaking into the funeral home, and it is the best part. As they creep through the darkened building (“Wasn’t that coffin lid closed the first time?”) it is very spooky. Once the vampire is revealed, it becomes less frightening, more run-of –the-mill. Still the overall grade for the episode is positive. The cast is very good, particularly Arjay Smith, and Michael Ironside seems to be having a great time with the role. For some reason, I love the scene where he is walking under the moonlight holding open a tattered umbrella.* Some people may gripe the episode never explains how Mr. Chaney became a vampire (One of the boys asks him “What happened, did you bite on the wrong dick?” “Something like that” he replies.) but we know the basics, and the origin story would have just slowed things down.

There’s a fair amount of gore. These vampires don’t have fangs, so they have to tear out the throats of their victims to feed. Despite its flaws, if you are looking to watch a horror story and only have an hour to spare, you could do a lot worse than The V Word.

* I know I’ve said this before, but if vampires burst into flame at the touch of sunlight (unless they are sparkly girly vampires), how can they bear moonlight? It is reflected sunlight, after all. At least, they should get some nasty blisters.
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Happy Halloween!

Hope you all have a great day on the best holiday of the year. Just remember, today the barrier between this world and the next will be at its thinnest, so beware. Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Night of the Creeps


A lot of bad horror flicks have been released through the years – you can find a lot of them by scrolling through this site – but one of the more notable films not to be released on DVD has been the 1986 cult classic Night of the Creeps. Horror fans will have to find another movie to bitch about being unavailable, because Night of the Creeps was released last week, just in time for Halloween. In recent years, the success of Shaun of the Dead has inspired a number of films in the zombie-comedy – “zombedy” – sub-genre, such as Hide and Creep, Trailer Park of Terror and Undead or Alive. But Night of the Creeps got there first, and is one of the best.

In outer space, some small, naked aliens are chasing one of their kind through a spaceship. The fleeing E.T. is carrying a metal container, which he manages to jettison through space. This does not look good, but what is the chance of this canister making it all the way to Earth? Hell, Superman’s space pod made it all the way from Krypton. We’re doomed.

Down on Earth, it’s 1959. Kids at the local college are having parties and making out, a coed has dumped her high school sweetheart Ray because he became a cop, and we can tell it’s the 50s because everything is in black & white. The alien canister is heading right for them, but that isn’t even the biggest of their worries, because, as so often happens in college towns, an axe murderer has escaped from the local asylum. Ray’s sweetheart finds the axe murderer in a tragic way, while her date locates the canister, and has an alien slug jump into his mouth. Some people are unlucky, this couple constituted a black hole of misfortune.

Now it’s the present (1986) and everything is in color again. Ray is a bitter police detective (now played by the great Tom Atkins, in what might be his best role), still mourning the loss of his true love, and the bobby-soxers of 1959 have given way to Revenge of the Nerds-style hijinks. A couple of dorks are looking to impress a girl by joining a fraternity, and are given a task of stealing a corpse. The fraternity has no intention of letting them in, because in the movies, fraternities are evil, just like in real life.

(An aside. The truly horrifying thing about this movie is the exposure to how awful fashion and music were in this decade. How did we ever let it get that bad? Culturally, we would have been better off to go straight from 1979 to 1990.)

The corpse stealing caper goes wrong, as they often do, and the two dorks manage to revive the corpse of the slug-swallower, frozen since 1959. Apparently the slugs enter human hosts, feed on the brain while they breed, controlling the dead host while this happens, then the hosts head explodes, releasing a horde of new slugs. This all seems like a bad thing. Soon the dorks have teamed with Detective Ray and the Hot Chick, and are all that stand in the way of the Earth becoming a zombified alien slug breeding ground.

This is definitely a campy B movie, but it is a very well done B movie. It’s good enough to function as a comedy or a low budget horror film, so you can enjoy either or both. With the exception of Atkins and a couple of famous faces in small roles (David Payner and Dick Miller), none of the cast went on to lasting success in acting, but they acquit themselves well. Atkin’s catch phrase in the movie, “Thrill me”, said whenever he answers the phone or arrives at the scene of a crime, is one of the most memorable in horror history, and you’ll probably find yourself answering the phone that way for a while.

The movie features the director’s preferred ending, although the ending most of us saw back in the 80s is available as a special feature. There are also deleted scenes, two commentary tracks, featurettes and trailers, so if you are a huge fan of the movie, this should be heaven for you. The transfer is surprisingly sharp. I was expecting a lot of grain, but it cleaned up quite well. My biggest complaint is the releasing company seems to have gone out of its way to pick the worst possible DVD cover, but you can always turn it to face the wall.
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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wrong Turn 3: Left For Dead


A film series that was probably not endorsed by the West Virginia Department of Tourism, the Wrong Turn movies have been reasonably well done, in relation to other films in the Inbred Cannibal Mutant genre. Extremely gory, I thought the original, with Eliza Dushku and Jeremy Sisto, was surprisingly good, and Wrong Turn 2, with Henry Rollins, a solid sequel which handled its reality show subplot competently. It would be bucking the odds for the third film in the series to hold up, but past efforts were enough to warrant giving Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead a try.

The movie opens with some rafters pitching camp at the edge of a river. What could have been a nice getaway collapses in a hail of arrows. Yep, the Inbred Cannibal Mutants (ICMs) from the first two movies are back. Some of them, anyway, as the events of the previous films have trimmed their numbers to just two. Oh well, they make up for their scarcity by being almost unkillable, as the main remaining ICM will be shot once, stabbed twice, chopped twice with an axe, and run through with a spear, all to little effect.

Meanwhile, the local department of corrections is preparing for a prisoner transfer featuring a dangerous gang leader named Chavez. To prevent a rescue attempt, they decide to do the transfer at night through a deeply forested section of the state. Don’t they know rural West Virginia is pure cannibal country? Apparently not, or maybe they just think this will be cheaper than keeping the prisoners.

Sure enough, as they are passing through a particularly deserted stretch of road, they are forced off and wrecked by the ICM in a tow truck. After everyone gets out of the overturned bus, the prisoners easily take the weapons from the slow-witted cop hero, and for the rest of the movie, it’s the prisoners trying to find an escape route while fending off the attempts by the locals to make Convict Chow out of them.

There’s a lot wrong with the movie. We know that one of the “prisoners” is an undercover marshal, but twice he is handed the shotgun and doesn’t use it to help subdue the prisoners, awaiting the opportunity to trip Chavez with a chain instead, which seems inefficient. There are a series of Rube Goldberg type traps in the woods set by the ICMs, which are a little too unbelievable, as strange as that might seem in a movie about killer mutants. The special effects are as gory as ever, but not quite up to snuff. When it comes time to saw through the legs of one of the inmates (told you it was gory), it’s obvious the “legs” are nothing more than thin pipe, which parts way too easily with a knife.

Still, you get what you pay for, and it’s obvious the budget was much lower for this installment in the series than its predecessors. Although it is supposed to take place in the United States, it was actually filmed in Eastern Europe, and most of the actors with speaking parts are British, although they do a reasonable job with their fake accents.

At the end of the day, if you liked the first two Wrong Turn movies, you’ll probably like this one, too, although it’s not quite as good.
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More Halloween Move Recommendations

If you've already exhausted my list of recommendations for Halloween flicks, you can head over to Bloody Good Horror, for Casey's list, with which I wholeheartedly concur.
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New Norman Prentiss Interview

If you are on Cemetery Dance's mailing list, the most recent newsletter features an interview I did with Norman Prentiss (yes, that's my real name) to promote his upcoming release Invisible Fences. Norman was gracious enough to allow me to do it, and hopefully I was able to come up with a couple of questions that were worthy. If you didn't get the newsletter, you can read the interview at Cemetery Dance's website by clicking here.
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The Nightwalker


Leisure Books promoted 2008 as the “Year of the Werewolf” in horror fiction (giving rise to the slogan, “Werewolf is the new zombie), with three titles involving lycanthropy in the first half of the year. The first was J.F. Gonzalez’ Shapeshifter, and the third was Ray Garton’s Ravenous (Garton has also published a sequel to Ravenous called Bestial), coming in a couple of months. Thie middle title in the triumvirate is a reprint of Thomas Tessier’s classic novel from 1979, The Nightwalker. Looking back, the werewolf craze never really caught hold, but the three are all fine stories in their own right.

The Nightwalker
is the story of Bobby Ives, a Vietnam veteran living in London who is apparently recovering from psychological trauma suffered during the war. Bobby begins suffering strange symptoms, a recurrent catatonia and odd feelings in his extremities. Eventually, his behavior deteriorates to the point of murder, as he is overcome by irresistible impulses. Personally, he becomes more callous and narcissistic. Bobby comes to the belief that he has lived before, as the owner of a Caribbean plantation, and that he has been cursed into becoming a werewolf. Tessier’s prose is masterful, and the central intrigue of the novel is whether Bobby is really becoming a werewolf, or if he is just a psychotic with canine delusions.

Because the original novel is about 200 pages long, and Leisure tries to make all their publications just a little more than 300 pages, a bonus novella is included, as with previous Leisure releases. This sort of bonus is one I appreciate, and offers interesting bonuses to fans. The included novella here is The Dreams of Dr. Ladybank, a 100 page story written by Tessier in 1991. It’s about a psychologist who learns he can mentally control the actions of two of his patients. As always with Tessier, it is well written, but it is just too long, as the concept can’t sustain a 100 page story. You know where it’s going, and you just become impatient for it to get there so you can be through.

So, my judgment is: Thumbs up for The Nightwalker, thumbs down for The Dreams of Dr. Ladybank. The book includes an introduction by Jack Ketchum and an afterword by the author himself.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Seldom Seen in August


Although novels get most of the attention, the heart and soul of the horror genre has always been the short story, and one of the modern masters of the short story is the Irish-born Kealan Patrick Burke, whose short story collection the 121 to Pennsylvania and Other Stories ranks among the best collections ever published.

In "Seldom Seen in August", Wade Crawford is a man on the run. A bank robbery has gone wrong with three people killed, and he is fleeing in one direction while his partner goes in the other (with the money). Wade is an unrepentant killer, so the death of innocents doesn’t concern him, but eluding the police does. His flight takes him to a residential subdivision, and a road strangely named Seldom Seen. There he seeks refuge in a seemingly deserted house.

Wade made a bad choice, as he is confronted by a boy with a straight razor, a horribly burned woman and others, all of whom appear and disappear at will. The police are also closing in on him, but given what he has gotten himself into, Wade would have been better off going down in a hail of bullets than facing what waits in the house on Seldom Seen road.

Burke does a good job of creating a sense of dread despite the intentionally unappealing protagonist, and he takes the story in directions that are unanticipated. (From reading the description, you probably think you know where the story is headed. You’re wrong.) It’s always difficult to flesh out a character in the brief pages of a short story, but Burke does it well, which is why he is a master of the form.

The chapbook was published by White Noise Press, with artwork by White Noise Press founder Keith Minnion. It is an attractive package to complement a good story, so I would recommend you order it. Except it is out of print, so good luck. I got mine from a certain gurkling.
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Monday, October 26, 2009

Sticks - Free Download


A lot of people believe “Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner is the greatest horror story ever written. If you have never read it and want to check it out, or have read it but want it in a new format, the ZBS Foundation is offering the audiobook of this great story as a free download through Halloween. You can access it at their website here. The audiobook is recorded in Kuntskopf binaural sound, which produces a 3D effect for the listener. If you’ve ever heard the excellent adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Mist”, this is the same process. Give it a listen.
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Cold Prey


After watching Norwegians being responsible for nearly wiping out the human race in The Thing, it was time to see what they could do with more conventional horror, so I watched the Norwegian movie Cold Prey (Fritt Vilt). It’s a slasher movie, heavily influenced by classic American slasher flicks, but better done than most American approaches to the sub-genre.

Five attractive young people (two couples and the comic relief) are on a ski vacation when one breaks a leg. Because they had chosen a remote mountain to ski to avoid crowds, they are far from any help, so they take refuge in a nearby abandoned hotel. They find out the hotel isn’t as isolated as they thought, and the madman with a pickaxe who lives there begins stalking and killing them. Can the Final Girl survive?

There’s not much more to the basic plot line than that, and it follows the typical formula for the type of movie it is. There are some aspects, however, that elevate it a bit above what we have come to expect from a Halloween-inspired movie.

First of all, though none of the five victims-in-process are perfect, neither are any of them so unlikeable you want them to die, as is the case in most slasher movies. This means that you are rooting for them to survive the attacks of the psycho, which makes their death or near-death much more visceral. I assume when the inevitable American remake is filmed, an actress from Gossip Girl will be cast to play the Complete Bitch, and an actor from The Hills will play the Self-absorbed Asshole, which will help make it just like every other movie. The characters also seem to be actual friends, and try their best to help each other. They also show relative level of resourcefulness once they realize what is going on.

The movie is well shot, with interiors in the old hotel suitably claustrophobic, while the outdoor photography is beautiful. I’m sure shooting exteriors in snow-covered mountains helps with that. The acting is good, particularly in the case of the Final Girl.

If you are a fan of slasher movies, I suggest you check out Cold Prey, it is a cut above the average fare. If you are a fan of Cold Prey, get ready, because the sequel is already showing in Europe.
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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dark Hollow

Brian Keene (Darkness on the Edge of Town, Castaways, Ghost Walk, Ghoul) has been called the "king of the mid-list horror writers", and with good reason. It's hard to imagine a writer other than Stephen King working in horror who has as dedicated a following, evidenced by the fact that, in a time when re-sale prices for "collectible" limited edition books are plummeting, Keene's are beginning to appreciate. One of these days, he will break through the invisible barrier that separates the mid-list from those few whose books first see publication in more readily available hardbacks. Dark Hollow is actually the first mass market publication of an earlier Keene novel, The Rutting Season (a superior, if less marketable, title). Keene has been so consistently good readers must be wondering when he will turn out a dud, but it doesn’t happen here. After finishing it, I can say that Dark Hollow is my second favorite Keene novel, after Ghoul.

The protagonist of Dark Hollow is a midlist writer named Adam Senft, who is a fairly obvious doppelganger for Keene himself (the novel is told in first person from Senft’s point of view, and reads very much like Keene’s blog). Senft is living a comfortable life in southwestern Pennsylvania, with a good wife and a loving, if cowardly, dog. He is friends with his neighbors, and the only serpent in his personal Garden of Eden is the inability of his wife to carry a child to term, something that has created a distance between them, but they are trying to work through. This all comes to an end when Adam, on a walk with his dog, sees one of his neighbors performing fellatio on a statue (who hasn’t run across that?).

This would be only kinky, but the statue comes to life. It turns out the statue was an imprisoned satyr, who begins abducting women from the area in order to procreate with them. Adam and his friends fight the creature, and suffer grave losses along the way.

I liked the way Keene uses a creature rarely seen in horror of late, the satyr, which was a staple of early and pre 20th century horror stories. It is also welcome to see Keene, who is a student of the genre as well as a writer, pay tribute to earlier writers, naming an archaeologist after Welsh writer Arthur Machen, who explored similar themes, and to Manly Wade Wellman’s character Silver John. Machen's literary creation, Nodens, also appears in the mythology constituting the novel's backstory. The action flows well, as we have come to expect from Keene, but the characters are possibly more sympathetic than in any other of his work. There is also a sly element of humor in the book, which, in keeping with Stephen King’s observation that humor and horror are closely related, adds a lot of enjoyment to the reading.

Keene has said that all of his work is connected in one great cycle known as The Labyrinth. When I first heard this, I wasn’t too sure about it. Many authors, trying to make their stories fit into the same continuity, do so at the expense of the individual story at hand. With Ghoul and Dark Hollow, I am beginning to appreciate the larger view. The events in Dark Hollow contain both explicit and implicit references to other Keene work (for example, the powwow farmer Nelson LeHorn is mentioned in Ghoul, and one of the characters from Terminal pops up here), and it is beginning to whet my appetite to see more of The Labyrinth.
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Friday, October 23, 2009

True Blood


Despite my affection for all things creepy and spooky, I didn’t really expect much from the HBO series True Blood. It is based on the paranormal romance series by Charlaine Harris, and the romantic part of the paranormal just isn’t for me. A few years ago, someone I know who was into that sort of thing suggested I give them a try, since they weren’t like the rest of the genre. So I started Dead Before Dark, the first book I the series, but quit about 50 pages in. No reflection on the books or Ms. Harris’ ability, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Still, I decided to check out the show when the first season was released on DVD, in part because the producer was Alan Ball, who had written the script for American Beauty and produced the HBO series Six Feet Under.

The series is set in Bon Temps, Louisiana, in an alternate universe where vampires (and other manner of supernatural creatures) exist. Vampires have just come out into the open with the invention of Tru Blood, a synthetic blood substitute which allows them to forego the usual murder-for-survival. Some of the vampires are trying to assimilate into human life, which is met with resistance by many breathing humans. The obvious over-riding metaphor for the series is the gay rights movement, although no one has marketed a de-gaying soft drink yet.

The town of Bon Temps has a friendly neighborhood bar and grill called Merlotte’s, where a young waitress named Sookie Stackhouse works. Sookie is special in her own right, as she can read minds, something she finds to be more of a curse than an asset. Her life changes when a customer comes in whose mind is inaccessible to her – a vampire named Bill (Stephen Moyer). They embark on a romance that causes friction in both vampire and human communities, and get involved in the overarching story line for the season, uncovering a serial killer stalking Bon Temps. There is a major sub-plot involving the fact that a vampire’s blood acts as a drug on humans, leading to addiction problems and a reverse predator situation where some humans drain vampires for profit.

Other notable character include Merlotte’s owner Sam (Sam Trammell), who has secrets of his own, Tara (Rutina Wesley), Sookie’s best friend, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie’s moronic brother who careens from one catastrophe to another, and the charismatic Eric (Alexander Skarsgård, son of the great Skellan Skarsgård), who serves as the vampire “sheriff” for the region.

[Some Spoilers Follow]

The series didn’t start off well for me. The first episode or two seemed predictable and dull. Bill and Sookie fell for each other too fast, and since it was necessary for the plot for Sookie to save Bill, he is subdued far too easily by a human man and woman. The opening pre-credits sequence featured a brief scene in which the character you think is a vampire turns out not to be, while the character least likely is, which is trite and is pretty much the same as the opening of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer series.

But a few episodes in, things started to work. The characters acquired more than expected depth, with Sookie, rather than being a typical super-hero type, being very human, showing signs of jealousy, anger and petulance which made her seem much more real to me. Bill was not quite the typical mopey vampire sworn never to do harm to a human being, but rather a creature whose first thought when someone he cares about is threatened is to chow down. The series was also willing to have bad things happen to the characters, including killing some off when needed, injecting an element of danger. Pretty soon, I was hooked.

The story line for the season is brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and the whole thing is told with much humor. By the time we reached the end of the final episode of the first season, I was looking forward to the next one. So, if you have been thinking about giving True Blood a try but were afraid it would be too cute, go ahead. You might be surprised.

A trivial note: Stephen Moyer, who plays the main vampire in this series, was also a (rarely-seen) vampire on the great British TV series Ultraviolet.
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

John Carpenter's The Thing


Man is the warmest place to hide.

Back in 1982, I was dating my future wife when, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, we took in the strangest double feature pairing at a local theater I have ever seen, the musical Annie and John Carpenter’s horror movie The Thing. Both of us fell in love with the violent, gory The Thing, and since the advent of home video, it has become a pre-Halloween tradition to re-watch it in October.

One of the key elements in a lot of good horror is isolation of the protagonists. When you have no backup and there’s no possibility of being rescued, the fear is intensified, and The Thing handles this well by placing the movie at a scientific research station in Antarctica during the relatively inaccessible winter months. There the boredom of the station’s staff is interrupting by a fleeing dog, with men shooting at it from a helicopter. It turns out the men are from a Norwegian base nearby, and a visit to the base finds devastation. The entire Norwegian contingent has been wiped out in some desperate battle. The Americans also learn the Norwegians found something buried in the ice.

It is slowly learned the thing found in the ice is an alien organism, with the ability to consume and replicate any living thing. Unfortunately, by the time this realization is reached, the staff knows that at least one of them has already been replaced, and if they don’t stop it here, the thing will escape and menace all life on Earth.

The story began as a novella called “Who Goes There?”, written by Don A. Stuart, a pseudonym for legendary science fiction editor John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell had grown up in a home with a mother who loved him and his aunt, his mother’s identical twin, who despised him, which seems to have led to the themes in the story. I first read a reprint of the novella when I was nine. The nightmares had mostly subsided by the time I was fourteen, and if you’re a fan of the movie but have never read the novella, I encourage you to do so. The novella was filmed under the production of Carpenter’s hero Howard Hawkes in 1951 as The Thing From Another World. It, too, is a classic, but due to the limitations of special effects at the time, as well as the mores of the day, it bears only a superficial resemblance to the source material.

Although The Thing is now recognized as a horror classic, the best horror movie ever in many people’s minds (including mine), it was a box office disappointment upon its release, which came shortly after the release of the very different alien movie, E.T. Most of the reviews of the day were amazingly hostile, with one prominent science fiction magazine dubbing it the worst movie of all time.

Regardless, this movie is the great John Carpenter at the peak of his talent, and it has gone on to be recognized as a classic of filmmaking. I have never seen anything else that communicated paranoia and looming menace as effectively as this film. Debates still rage among fans as to which of the characters in the movie (including the lead character Macready, well played by Kurt Russell) had been taken over by the entity. And talks of a sequel/prequel still arise now and then.

The tight script was written by Bill Lancaster, son of legendary actor Burt Lancaster, whose only other produced screenplay was the decidedly different Bad News Bears. There were plans at the time for Carpenter and Lancaster to continue with their collaboration, and Lancaster had written a couple of scripts, including a reportedly excellent re-working of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, but the failure of The Thing at the box office scuttled all those plans.

If you own the DVD, I would also recommend you check out the audio commentary with Carpenter and Russell. Their banter is informative and humorous, among the better commentaries I’ve ever heard. If you want a drinking game, take a shot every time you hear one of these apparent chain smokers flick the wheel of his cigarette lighter. You should be dead of alcohol poisoning by the time the first creature appears.
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

London Under Midnight


VAMPIRE SHARKZ
☺ THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU ☺

This is the mysterious graffiti that is appearing all over town in Simon Clark’s (Vampyrrhic, Vampyrrhic Rites, Blood Crazy, This Rage of Echoes) book London Under Midnight (a play on the title of the classic Lon Chaney movie, I suppose). Ben Ashton is a magazine writer assigned to uncover who is doing the graffiti and why. He gets more than he bargains for as he discovers London is undergoing a plague of vampires, who reach the city underwater from a small island in the Thames. The assignment turns personal for Ben when his unrequited love, April Connor, is attacked by a vampire and disappears.

In Vampyrrhic and Vampyrrhic Rites, Clark gave the vampire story a new twist by incorporating elements of Norse mythology. Here he tries to do the same using the Nigerian trickster god Edshu as the driving force behind the vampires. Edshu, as is explained in endless exposition by an old Nigerian man named Elmo, is doing this to test the city, or someone in it.

I’ve been a fan of Simon Clark for a long time, as you can tell if you read my earlier posts about his books, but this one just didn’t work for me. Although it is a short novel, just over 200 pages, it drags in places, as there are long sequences of conversation or characters thinking about things that don’t really have anything to do with the main story.

There are also plot points that go nowhere, as for example the point that is mentioned over and over that these vampires have sticky hair. You expect that to have something important to do with the story, but it doesn’t, and is never really explained. Most of the characters are also unlikeable. Some things strain credulity, like the fact that hundreds of vampires are making berserker attacks in London each night, but no one but our heroes seems very concerned. I guess London is so deserted, these things pass without notice. I would have expected martial law to be declared.

[SPOILER] The biggest problem is the ending, which is beyond silly. Apparently, all the lead has to do is imagine the problem being resolved and it happens, with all the vampires dissolving, except for the ones he cares about, who are cured. So for vampires, all you need is positive thinking. [END SPOILER]

If you haven’t read Simon Clark, I urge you to do so. He truly is one of the best horror writers working today. But, please, don’t start with London Under Midnight.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mystery Walk


Back in the 80s, at the onset of the horror boom, publishers were looking for the next Stephen King, a horror writer who could grab the public’s imagination (and deliver the sales) as King had. No one really succeeded in matching the King, but the author who came the closest was Robert R. McCammon. I always read horror novels in October to ramp up for Halloween, and this year, decided to include a couple of “sure things”, classic novels I had read before and liked. One of the choices this year was McCammon’s Mystery Walk, which I first read on its original paperback publication, but haven’t re-visited since.

There are a couple of reasons that I am predisposed to like this book, other than McCammon being one of my favorite authors. First of all, I was living in Birmingham, where McCammon also lives, during the time he wrote his best work. (I met him on several occasions at signings and the like, and he was always gracious.) The other is that the book is set in Fayette, Alabama, which happens to be my hometown. To my knowledge, this is the only work of fiction using Fayette as a location.

Billy Creekmore, a half-Choctaw boy living in Fayette County, received an unusual inheritance from his mother: The ability to see the restless dead. Even more important, he has the ability to help the spirits leave their pain behind and pass on to the next world. This talent has made the Creekmores needed in their rural area, but has also made them shunned and feared. It has also given them a fierce opponent, a demonic Shape Shifter which uses the tormented dead for its own evil purposes, and therefore doesn’t want to let them go.

The Creekmores also have some human enemies. A prominent evangelist, J. J. Falconer, hails from Fayette, and has a son, Wayne, the same age as Billy, who has the power to heal. The Falconers view the Creekmores as competition, and want to put a stop to them.

Billy’s journey through life – his “mystery walk” – takes him from Fayette to a traveling carnival, to Chicago, and back home. As he grows into a man, he learns to accept and deal with his power, and to see his enemies for what they are. The road leads to an ultimate confrontation, both with his ancient spiritual enemy, and the more earthly Falconers.

Objectively, Mystery Walk is not McCammon’s strongest book. It reads somewhat like a trial run for his masterpiece, Boy’s Life, sharing that book’s time period and rural Alabama setting. I felt the impact of the book was somewhat diluted when Billy hits the road, as he never seemed as real a character in Chicago as he did in Fayette, and wish the book’s focus had remained there. Mccammon does use the book to make some social commentary about life in the South back then, mostly as regards to racism and religion, but I wish he'd done a little more.

But second-tier McCammon is still head and shoulders above most writers’ best work, and this is a very good novel. I wouldn’t recommend it as the starting point for someone new to McCammon’s work, but I would advise readers not to miss it.

A couple of nit-picky notes, of interest to no one else: I don’t know if McCammon did much research on Fayette when he wrote the book (there was no real need) but he got a detail or two wrong. First of all, the description of Fayette County High (my alma mater) is all wrong. Secondly, reference is made to the “Fayette County High Bulldogs”. At the time of the novel, we were known as the “Fighting Tigers” (I think they’ve dropped the “Fighting” part of the name now, since it is considered wrong these days to fight for anything). Again, these are things anyone who wasn’t from Fayette wouldn’t care about, but I guess I have to be true to my school.
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