Today we have a fine pair of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #31:-
DARK REGIONS PRESS
William Meikle had me on side with the very first sentence of CRUSTACEANS (DRP pb, 189pp, $14.95): you can’t help but admire a writer who has the audacity to start a novel with the line “The whale farted”, while at the same time harbouring a sneaking dread that from now on it might all be downhill and with the wind at our backs.
The corpse of this flatulent cetacean is washed up on the Boston shoreline. Outsize and spectacularly savage crabs burst from its belly to make short work of the hapless scientists sent to investigate. Crustacean expert Shona Menzies suspects that her father is correct and an attack by giant crabs similar to events that occurred in Scotland some years ago is imminent. Seconded to a unit of elite troops led by Colonel Stack, Shona becomes part of the first response when the crabs invade, but while battle rages on the streets of New York, in the sewers and tunnels below the metropolis the crabs gather their forces and breed, making desperate measures necessary.
There’s not a lot you can usefully say about this addition to the creature feature subgenre. I assume it’s a sequel of sorts to the Guy N. Smith series of novels begun with 1976’s Night of the Crabs (hence the references to a previous incursion), but as I haven’t read those books I have no idea how well Meikle has captured the tone and feel of his source material, and it’s probably a non-issue anyway as from what little exposure I do have to Smith’s oeuvre, I suspect Meikle is the much better writer. A concurrent plot strand involving the attempts of crab catcher Joe Porter, a character who seems annoyingly devoid of self-awareness and has borderline redneck sensibilities, to sell a giant crab to the local zoo, pushed credibility and patience on occasion, but other than that there is little to cavil at in this well-tuned creature feature, replete with lashings of gore and no guarantee that anyone will come out the other end, a fast paced plot and some decently drawn characters, with a touch of romance thrown in for good measure. The book is exciting, handling the action sequences with aplomb and making the crabs seem suitably monstrous and menacing, so that you have little difficulty believing humanity truly could be facing an extinction event, and there are plenty of echoes to similar horrors to pick up on, such as a visit to the crabs’ subterranean lair that brings to mind scenes in films like Aliens and Godzilla.
Crustaceans doesn’t have any heavy, gore coated message about the dangers of upsetting the ecosphere and Mother Nature kicking back against uppity mankind. At bottom, it’s a fun book, written to show the reader a good time and nothing more than that, on which level it succeeds admirably well. I thoroughly enjoyed its pulp(ish) pleasures.
THE DARK SIDE OF HEAVEN (DRP paperback, 167pp, $14.95) by Gord Rollo is set against the backdrop of the Vietnamese War and is the story of U. S. Marine Lance Corporal Tyrone Banks, a man with serious psychological issues, thanks to the burden of guilt he carries at past behaviour. Banks volunteers for ‘tunnel rat’ duty and gets killed in a duel with an enemy sniper, but when he wakes up he finds himself in Purgatory with no destination in mind. He sets out for the city of Tartarus, where he has the chance to redeem himself by rescuing the people he let down in his past from the clutches of the evil Scarlet Witch and then guiding them to the Gates of Heaven.
I’ve read a couple of novels by Gord Rollo in the past, one hit and one miss, so Heaven is my tiebreaker as far as this author is concerned. Despite the horror trappings, it’s more of a fantasy quest novel, like nothing so much as The Wizard of Oz crossed with Edward Lee’s novels of the afterlife, and a nod in the direction of Lucius Shepard’s story ‘Delta Sly Honey’ plus a villainess who could have been the understudy for the Great Tyrant in Barbarella. It’s a mash up of conflicting inspirations and story templates that never quite seem to gel as you wish they would, set against a theological backdrop that stands in opposition to nearly all of what’s on offer, leaving you with the feeling that Rollo is just making it up as he goes along and crowbarring whatever takes his fancy into the plot. Tyrone Banks doesn’t particularly appeal as a protagonist, albeit in fairness to Rollo he’s not meant to be a ‘nice’ person, though with possibility of redemption, but the angst he feels seems superficial, very much a case of somebody who complains too much and his introspection about what has happened to him and its religious implications doesn’t cut particularly deep. None of the other people we meet have much depth to them, and seem to be there primarily for Banks to react to. The wonders which they witness – a zombie army, a flying stone dragon, phantom GIs, ice angels – never quite come to life on the page, and having been built up as invincible the Witch is defeated with almost ridiculous ease. Everything that Banks does, from escaping his cell to meeting the clumsily foreshadowed Lost Patrol, feels completely contrived and none of the action scenes really caught my attention. To make matters worse, there were some distracting typos, with the Witch turning ‘Scarlett’ on one occasion, ‘Brody’ going to ‘Brock’ and Tyrone travelling to ‘Glacier Lake’ only to then arrive at ‘Glazier Lake’. Miss.