Trailer Trash – Never Go Back

Have to say I wasn’t particularly impressed by the first Jack Reacher movie, but maybe this one will be better.

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Filler content with DarkFuse

Reviews of three novellas published by DarkFuse that originally appeared in Black Static #51:-

DARKFUSE NOVELLAS

David Bernstein’s RELIC OF DEATH (DarkFuse eBook, 99pp, $2.99) opens with hitmen Sal and Bruno returning from a woodland body dump. When their car breaks down they stumble across an isolated cabin in the woods with unusual security in place and decide to go in for a little recreational breaking and entering. Inside they find a locked safe containing a briefcase filled with diamonds, which ultimately proves the truth of the old saying about honour among thieves. The briefcase passes through various people’s hands, including junkie Henry, down on her luck Sandra, and peeping tom building supervisor Max, granting each what they secretly desire, but with unforeseen and fatal consequences, before finding its way back to Keeper Joel.

There’s not a lot to be said about this story. It’s the cursed object template reinvented along the lines of Schnitzler’s La Ronde with bloody death in lieu of sexual liaisons. I could have done with more about the history of the Relic, how it came to end up in Joel’s possession, who had it before him and how long has the tradition of Keepers lasted down the years, but Bernstein sketches in only the minimum information required. His character studies of the various members of the story’s cast are well done. Sal and Bruno are friends and rivals, with very different approaches to their profession, while Sandra is a victim of misogyny, and Max an obvious perpetrator of the same and deeply unsavoury. In each case the Relic takes their natural resentments and fears and amplifies them to the point that they will undertake behaviour that would normally not occur to them, as with one character killing his abusive wife. It’s done well, but at the same time all rather simplistic, a story that entertains and does nothing more than that, which is probably the author’s intention, though I felt something was lacking, such as a reason for what takes place, a point or purpose to it all beyond giving Joel a replacement Keeper to train. It’s like putting the Holy Grail (the anti-Grail in this case) in a story, and using it to do nothing except drink out of. I liked what we got, but felt the story could have benefited from a greater ambition and scope.

In BLOODEYE (DarkFuse eBook, 119pp, $2.99) by Craig Saunders, plumber Keane Reid is summoned to a pub with a flooded basement, where he finds the corpse of a murdered woman nailed to the wall, with a third eye carved into her forehead. It is a reminder of events that took place seven years ago, when he was a police scene of crime photographer, and bore witness to a similar atrocity, only to find that his wife then became a target for the killer. Keane couldn’t save Teresa, but with the help of her spirit he was able to overcome the entity he refers to as Brother Shadow, a demonic creature that lives in his shadow. But now, in the wake of a heat wave, it appears that Brother Shadow is back and Keane must once again confront his nemesis, only this time it will take the ultimate sacrifice on his part.

Fast paced, with over fifty very short chapters, the longest probably only three pages, this is a riveting read. There is more than enough gore to satisfy those who enjoy such aspects of horror fiction, with atrocities taking centre stage at critical moments in the text. And the Norwich setting is convincingly realised on the page, with places that I know personally brought to believable life. At heart, once you get beyond the supernatural elements, what we have is a story of a man trying to keep his sanity in the face of impossible odds, a man who has lost everything, including the woman he loves above all else, and blames himself for doing so (and, with references to medication, Saunders keeps open the possibility that this may all be down to a psychotic break). Central to Keane’s psyche is the act of running, a thread and imagery that moves through the book, with the shift from running away to running towards the threat a pivotal moment. Similarly there is a subtext about love, how Keane needs Teresa’s guidance and reminders of their past love to conquer the evil, whether it be something external or a part of himself. Only one thing let the novella down – the implication that these characters exist in a vacuum, that the pair have no friends or family who will ask questions when Teresa apparently disappears, that her death will have no real world consequences other than the psychological effect on Keane. It’s something I felt should have been touched on and explained a bit more, but other than that minor quibble this was a thoroughly entertaining and engaging read, and I look forward to seeing more by this author, as he obviously has an original voice and stories to tell.

While Bernstein and Saunders are both new to me, Greg Gifune is an old favourite and OASIS OF THE DAMNED (DarkFuse eBook, 75pp, $2.99) does not disappoint. Heather Richter bails out of a helicopter in a remote corner of the Sahara. She is found by Owens who takes her to a ruined fort built beside an oasis. Owens tells her that he has been there for several weeks after his own plane crashed, and the others in his party were killed by the hordes of ravenous ghouls that attack the outpost every night. Disbelieving at first, Richter is convinced by what takes place as soon as darkness falls, joining in with Owens as he slaughters the ghouls, who just keep coming. The fort is well supplied with weapons and food left by previous occupants, such as the French Foreign Legion, and American and German forces from World War II, but all the same it seems inevitable that they will eventually be overrun, a dilemma that calls for desperate measures, an escape plan in which they must risk all.

Quite simply, this is a brilliant novella, one of the best that I read in 2015, if not the very best. It can be taken at face value, with two ex-soldiers engaged in a desperate battle against overwhelming odds, and as far as that goes Gifune gives us plenty of bang for our buck, with graphically described scenes of carnage and mayhem, enough to challenge the blood splatter skills of a Tom Savini. Woven into the narrative are details of the local legends and folklore, Gifune using these to prop up and give credibility to his concept of the ghouls, or in Arabic ghuls (demons), though for all realistic intents and purposes they seem like nothing so much as a zombie army. The bleakness of the setting is conveyed well, with relentless heat a factor in what is taking place, albeit minimalist, Gifune using it simply as a backdrop for the human drama that is playing out centre stage.

And it’s in this aspect that the author’s genius emerges, as we are told Richter’s back story and learn of the guilt she feels at not being present to help her younger brother, a victim of bullying. A further revelation hints that everything taking place is a psychodrama being played out inside Richter’s skull, the last gasp of the consciousness of a dying woman, or perhaps her personal vision of hell. In this scheme of things, karma is a bastard; Richter has lessons to learn and will be doomed to repeat them until she is ready to move on, with central to the story the conversations she has with her mother about death and the morality of war, the reasons we have to kill and die. Rather like a merger of Triangle and those jackal headed hordes from The Mummy 2, this is a splendid work of horror fiction, one that doesn’t stint on the gore effects and thrills, but with a hard moral core that elevates it above so much of what the genre has to offer. I loved it.

DarkFuse also do limited edition hardcover and paperback editions of some of their books, so if you’re a reader who prefers their fiction to come in non-electronic format, check out the publisher’s website (darkfuseshop.com) to see what’s available.

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Graphic Miscellany #1

I was so taken with the experience of reading graphic novels during super hero month that I’ve decided to include a smattering of them in my literary diet for the future, though from now on we can cast the net a tad wider than the super hero genre.

Jennifer Blood – A Woman’s Work is Never Done

Written by Garth Ennis, illustrated by Diverse Hands

By day, Jen Fellows is the average suburban housewife, taking care of her husband and children. By night she dresses up in leather gear, puts on a black wig, tools up with a generous selection of automatic weaponry, and goes out to kill bad guys. Specifically, she slaughters the members of a crime family against whom she appears to have a particular grudge, though she’s not above taking time out to deal with the occasional (non)innocent bystander. One element of the story that intrigued me is the disconnect between these two aspects of the character, how she has to drug her family so they won’t wake up in the night to discover her gone, how she goes shopping for groceries and weaponry with equal gusto and determination to get a bargain. It’s almost as if Jen has a split personality, and as her leather clad alter ego she lets rip, working off the frustrations of the daily grind with lashings of murder and mayhem. There is nothing neat or economical about the way in which Jennifer deals with her prey; while bullets serve her well, with head shots as the favoured mode of execution, she’s equally happy to chop her enemies up with an axe or even tear them apart with her bare hands. In scenes of wet work captured by the artists in all their glorious carnage, we have a four colour portrait of a psychopath at work, with only the fact that her victims are far worse than she is by way of redemption. At moments Ennis reminds us that she can be merciful, as when Jen spares the life of the peeping tom neighbour who reads far more into her penchant for leather than he should have done, but then such quibbles are swept aside as we have more lashings of gore. The plot is tenuous, with a bit of flimsy back story to explain Jen’s grudge match, but the grindhouse sensibility, with its emphasis on ever more grandiose and appalling murder carries all before it. I liked this book very much and will look for further volumes, though a faint warning bell alerts me to the fact that I should probably classify it as a guilty pleasure.

House of Mystery – Desolation

Written and illustrated by Diverse Hands

Back in the day when I ventured inside DC’s House of Mystery comic it used to be an anthology containing several stories along horror/weird lines, each introduced by host Cain. This graphic novel collects together the final issues (#36 – 42) of the 2008 iteration of the House, and while Cain might get a mention it doesn’t seem to have much else to connect it with what’s gone before. I confess that I felt somewhat like I’d been thrown in the deep end here, with a plethora of characters and situations chucked at me, most of it carrying over from previous issues. Lurking behind the different art styles and stories within stories is, I suspect, a fascinating account of a structure that exists at the centre of multiple realities and at the same time contains its own reality within it, a neutral realm for control of which other world forces battle constantly. There are hints in the text of something akin to Moorcock’s multiverse, with a house instead of an Eternal Champion. It was intriguing and kept me off balance while reading, so that I had no idea what to expect next, but at the same time it didn’t quite satisfy. I looked for a gestalt, some plot arc that made sense of everything, but if there was such a thing it remained tantalisingly out of view. I fear for me at least it was a case of it being better to travel than arrive. I may at some point revisit the House and try to follow the story from the very beginning, but self-contained this was not.

The X-Files – Thirty Days of Night

Written by Steve Niles and Adam Jones, illustrated by Tom Mandrake

To quote from the back cover blurbage – “brings together two iconic franchises, pitting the government’s best supernatural investigators against a horde of parasitic vampires”. And yeah, it certainly sounds like a good idea, but as always with such franchises you know nothing will (or can) be fundamentally changed – and so Mulder and Scully live to fight another day, the vampires are still undead and thirsty for blood, and all the reader has to do is discover how much collateral damage the trade could allow. Plotting by the numbers – there’s an inexplicable slaughter in Wainwright, Alaska. The dynamic duo comes to investigate. Mulder calls vampire from the get go. Scully shakes her head and goes off to do science stuff. More people are horribly killed, including a couple of FBI agents. Mulder is proved correct, Scully is wrong. Our heroes get to find the bad guys and survive. Plus the inevitable hint of a government conspiracy. It’s all pretty much what you’d expect from the title and familiarity with the franchises’ histories, almost a going through the motions. The fun is to be had from the artwork, which is moody and atmospheric, capturing perfectly the tone and feel of the material. I liked it, but in a pass the time sort of way.

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Song for a Saturday – True Companion

Beautiful song.

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Filler content with zombie remains

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #20:-

Zombies are our monsters of the moment, with little sign of their popularity abating in the short term. The challenge for writers is to come up with something more interesting than the presiding ethos of ‘shoot the shambling monstrosities before they bite you’, which is all starting to seem a bit passé. It’s a challenge that’s more than adequately met in WHAT WILL COME AFTER: THE COMPLETE ZOMBIE STORIES OF SCOTT EDELMAN (PS Publishing hardback/traycased hardback, 186pp, £15/£35).

Title story ‘What Will Come After’ is an imagining of what life will be like as a zombie, with Edelman’s first person account painstakingly recording the appetites and urges that he expects to feel, and how he will travel cross country to be reunited with his wife and child, who must kill him for their own safety. It’s an intriguingly different and powerful opener to a collection that revels in being different, both in terms of content and the narrative devices employed. In ‘Live People Don’t Understand’ Emily remembers her life, but she must go back into the world to unravel the circumstances of her death, resulting in a catharsis of sorts and peace with the husband who never loved her while she was alive but finds that he does now that she is dead, the spiritual dimension of the story playing out in a rewarding symbiosis with the undercurrent of violence. ‘The Man He Had Been Before’ is one of the most touching of the stories, as a young man creates the happy home life he has never had by arranging zombies in family groupings. The subtext here seems to be that normal life will continue, a dysfunctional family or an abusive father/husband will continue just as before, even after the dead have come back to life.

‘Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man’ takes a more experimental approach, with a writer trapped inside a library and spinning stories about the zombie end of days. This is a clever piece, each flash fiction contributing to an overall picture and expanding our knowledge of what has taken place, with the author directly addressing the reader, though a far from omniscient narrator. ‘Goobers’ is possibly the weakest in the collection, though there is an interesting idea at its heart. As the zombie plague gains momentum a cinema shows an unending bill of zombie movies to an audience that wishes to educate itself in what is to come, only to find that when they arrive the zombies are similarly fascinated. Even they don’t know how they’re supposed to act, so new and unforeseen is this scenario, except by horror cinema’s goremeisters. Having set up this situation though, Edelman doesn’t really have anywhere interesting to go with it and so delivers a twist ending that reeks of black comedy. ‘Tell Me Like You Done Before’ gives the zombie take on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with George pursued across the dustbowl landscape of the American Depression by a zombie Lenny, and having to put things right for himself and his friend. I liked the idea behind the story, and there’s plenty of incident along the way, but ultimately it didn’t really have anything to add to the source material and so fell rather flat for me, like an upmarket version of one of those Pride and Prejudice and Zombies inspired stories.

Perversely, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘A Plague On Both Your Houses’ which also has a literary masterpiece as its progenitor, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this time retold as the forbidden love affair between the son of the Mayor of New York and the daughter of the King of the Zombies. As if that wasn’t crazy enough, Edelman tells it in the form of a play with rhyming verse, and while there are some serious points being made the comedy is the thing wherein he traps the soul of the reader, with delicious exchanges of dialogue and larger than life characters. In ‘The Human Race’ Paula Gaines wants to die after her father is killed in a terrorist attack, only the zombie rising renders suicide as futile as everything else. She finds closure of a sort by bringing the zombie head of a suicide bomber to the morgue where her father’s body is kept, the story tackling the ways in which people deal with grief and, like ‘The Man He Had Been Before’ it celebrates the fact that life goes on even after the dead have returned to life. We come full circle with ‘The Last Supper’ which, like the title story, is told from the viewpoint of a zombie, Walter pursuing his remorseless appetite until the very last man is eaten, and then the aliens arrive to see what has become of the world. It’s an attempt at long perspective, showing that the zombies need mankind, and compelling even if in the end it doesn’t really go anywhere.

This is a solid collection from a writer of talent and imagination, one that amply demonstrates the potential of zombie literature, once you get past all the gore and flesh eating that have become this horror archetype’s trademark.

From the same publisher we have LITERARY REMAINS ((PS Publishing hardback/traycased hardback, 195pp, £15/£35) by R. B. Russell. The title story to this collection of ten, ‘Literary Remains’ is related by a woman who, in her student days and after, worked in a bookshop, meeting a man called Robertson, who was once a celebrated writer of ghost stories and becomes famous once again after his death. She tells of what was possibly a supernatural encounter that took place while helping to clear the deceased’s flat. The story is beautifully written, with some excellent touches of atmosphere and character details, but it doesn’t quite seem to go anywhere, is simply a chain of events that the reader must enjoy for their own sake, and appealing as that is it didn’t really satisfy. More substantial is ‘An Artist’s Model’ in which we get a love triangle of sorts between an art student, his teacher and the gorgeous woman who models for and inspires them both, with the story again told with conviction and the hint of something outré and terrible running through the text but Russell showing admirable restraint in the ambiguity of the ending. The protagonist of ‘Llanfihangel’ is sucked into the scheme of somebody who claims to have been a school friend of his but may just be a con artist, the story deftly drawing the reader into its web, and leaving us no more certain of what has actually taken place than the ‘victim’, who wants to do good but simply doesn’t know if it is possible.

‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ has a young man turning up to meet the woman his father had an affair with and explaining the circumstances of their break-up (his father died, when he should have gone to the woman), but ghosts of the past invade the present as secrets are laid bare in a story that seductively twists first one way and then another. In ‘Another Country’ a publisher seeks out a foreign writer, only instead of being grateful the man is angry about how his work has been edited, and turns the tables on the publisher with a sinister final twist. The tale strongly conveys the minatory nature of its foreign setting, the sense that the protagonist is adrift both geographically and psychologically, with the idea that there are different sides to every story at its centre. ‘Loup-garou’ is a film the narrator saw many years ago and now wishes to share with his wife, to see if his memory is correct and that it contained references to their relationship, but memory itself appears to be malleable, as is reality in this strange, short piece. In ‘Blue Glow’ David’s fascination with his neighbour results in him taking on the other man’s life, his wealth and girlfriend, all with the man’s consent and encouragement, though it results in estrangement from the people who could matter to him, the story obliquely touching on how we are entranced by glamour and never follow the path that is best for us, one where triumphs are earned, not simply given.

‘A Revelation’ is the story of a council worker and what he found in the attic of one tenant’s house, with nothing particularly gruesome presented, but the strangeness of what takes place all the more disturbing. ‘Asphodel’ is the name of a vanity publisher and the story tells of an author who is certain his book will sell, and he turns out to be right, with one employee trying to figure out how and why, the story shot through with hints of the apocalyptic, but never quite coming out and saying where it’s at. Last story in the book, ‘Where They Cannot Be Seen’ has a couple who cheat on their spouses attempting to get away to a place of safety, when they discover a secret room in a rented house, but things go terribly awry, the story perhaps offering a comment on the nature of their love and how fragile happiness is.

This is an engaging and enjoyable collection from a writer whose work, through the power of suggestion implicit in each text and the oblique narrative strategies, brings to mind that of Aickman, perhaps crossed with some of the more adventurous strands of European cinema. While he is not as assured in the execution (no criticism – few people are as assured as Aickman was) there is the same sense that, strange as the things recorded on the page undoubtedly are, they are only the tip of an iceberg, and it’s to our benefit that we never see the full picture. Recommended.

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Trailer Trash – Arrival

Oh crap! The aliens have come calling again, and just before my birthday, which is really, really inconsiderate of them.

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Filler content with flirting

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #20:-

Anita Black, vampire hunter and licensed necromancer, is a woman with principles: she won’t raise just any old dead person, and she needs a good reason to exercise her necromantic powers. One potential client she turns down won’t take no for an answer, and so hires a pack of were-lions to force Anita’s hand by threatening her friends and dependents. For Anita the only way out is to seduce one of her captors and then use her influence over him to turn the beast against the rest of his pack.

Laurell K. Hamilton’s FLIRT (Headline paperback, 179pp, £10.99) is the eighteenth book chronicling Blake’s adventures. It’s a series I dip into now and again, and about which I’m ambivalent – not really sold on the direction Hamilton is taking the character, the noir(ish) feel of early days giving way to an almost soft core porn sensibility, but at the same time not so turned off that I’m willing to bid the character a fond adieu. Every time I feel ready to let go, Hamilton will write something that makes me feel she really understands what horror is all about, not to mention passion and literature, and I’ll keep hanging on, even while not expecting the reality to match up to the promise.

Flirt is a short novel, and yet it has about it the unmistakable feel of being padded, a novella with pretensions to something more and a bumped word count to match. The base concept is not the most original of ideas (I think I saw it used most recently in an episode of Charlie’s Angels shown back in the 80s), but the author handles it well and there are interesting asides on the nature of packs, the various pecking orders etc., while the situation of Anita, an ostensibly puritanical woman who must use sex to save herself and others is, as ever, an intriguing one, the pretext for all sorts of moral qualms and guilt trips. There are also some pretty gutsy action scenes at the end, when the whole thing falls apart, with Anita’s power let loose in all its destructive fury.

And yet padded, with the main cause of offence a totally irrelevant scene in which Anita and her cohorts visit a restaurant and flirt outrageously with the waiter, and another scene which is almost a replay of the original approach to Anita and seems to have been inserted simply so the reader will have a red herring conveniently on hand rather than guess the identity of the bad guy straight away. The restaurant scene, as Hamilton tells us in the afterword, was based on a real event and, apparently, was the inspiration for the book, yet there’s a cringeworthy quality, both to the scene and the reality, as the wage slave desperate for a tip gets flustered by the suggestive way in which the beautiful people bat their eyelids at him, treading the thin line between flirtatious playfulness and sexual harassment. My suspicion is that the only reason the scene was left in was so that Hamilton could ‘tell it like it was’ in the afterword, and also as a pretext for publishing a cartoon at the end in which one of Hamilton’s friends relates the same story in a different medium (personally, I’m looking to read the waiter’s version). There are reasons why writers are urged to ‘kill their babies’, and this unnecessary and distracting drivel in what might otherwise pass muster as a gory, action packed romp of a book demonstrates perfectly what they are.

And yet how can I give up on the work of someone who, at the end of the afterword, boldly declares, “If it can bleed me, eat me, or fuck me, I want to write about it”? It’s a conundrum, my friends, indeed it is.

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