Filler content of miscellaneous origin

Some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #33:-

MISCELLANEOUS

28 TEETH OF RAGE (Omnium Gatherum pb, 124pp, $7.20) by Ennis Drake is the story of cancer ridden Detective Riley, plagued with bad dreams of an Indian massacre and investigating two possible cases of serial killing that seem to be linked by a chop saw used to dismember body parts. Strom Wheldon is an Iraq vet who lost his legs in the war and is suicidal, but then wife Jodi brings him the chop saw bought at a garage sale and he finds a new lease of life in home maintenance. Only the saw, known as Rage, speaks to Strom telling him to sacrifice others to its blade and in exchange offering the return of his legs, just as it offered the return of sight to the previous owner, who Riley is now interested in because of a missing wife. As he listens to tapes made by Strom and reads Jodi’s journal in an attempt to make sense of what happened in their household, where bodies litter the cellar, Riley himself begins to feel the pull of the aptly named Rage.

This was my first book by Drake and it’s a fascinating story, melding together ancient Indian curses with a compelling account of a serial killer, one who hears voices telling him how to act. There is the possibility that Strom is delusional, but then if so Riley and others must share his delusion. There’s a tenseness and drive to the narrative, so that reading it is rather like watching a landslide in slow motion, knowing that people are going to get hurt but helpless to get them to move out of the way. Where Drake excels is in his depiction of the inner life of his characters, the despair felt by both Riley and Strom, and how this tears them apart and leaves them prey to outside influences such as Rage, with of course a subtext about how we ourselves would behave in such a situation, given the chance to put things right in our own lives but at a terrible cost to others. Neither is a sympathetic character, both filled with anger and bitterness, but all the same Drake draws them in such a way that we can understand and feel some compassion for these broken men, even as we abhor what they do. The idea of a sentient and malevolent saw sounds silly when considered in the abstract, but again Drake makes it work and superbly well, showing how the saw is inhabited by an ancient spirit, one that can accomplish miracles and takes on a powerful form, and the wet work in the story is handled with gusto, conveying twin strands of disgust and something akin to wonder. All in all, this is a superb short novel, one that takes an off the wall premise and runs with it to deliver something that is quite unique.

I said “was my first book by Drake”, because since then I’ve also read THE DAY AND THE HOUR (Omnium Gatherum e-book, 41pp, $1.99), which weighs in at that awkward length where I’m not sure to classify it novella or novelette, though it’s probably the latter. The title comes from the Bible quote about not knowing the day nor the hour of the Messiah’s coming. Jason Grae survives being shot by a carjacker, and has a vision of God, who tells him that he is to be a Saviour and help revive faith. He is given knowledge of the dates and nature of numerous catastrophes, such as 9/11. Disbelieving at first, Jason finds that he cannot stand by and watch the innocent die, and with special powers he is able to intervene. But even so he is unsure of his mission’s validity, given that he suffers from schizophrenia and the God who speaks to him doesn’t seem particularly holy, while he sees no purpose to the lives he saves.

Jason is an unreliable narrator, only too happy to concede that his visions may be illusory. The hints of an alien power struggle in which humans are being used as pawns adds another dimension to the tale, but regardless of all that its heart lies in the struggle of one lonely, flawed man to do the right thing when plunged into terrible circumstances and that is what makes the story stand out, Jason’s soul searching. In a way he is emblematic of us all, watching as bad things happen to others, doing nothing to prevent them until finally he can no longer stand it: ultimately how Jason conducts himself is of more importance than any concerns about the reality of his situation. As with his illustrious predecessor in the role of saviour, there are moments when Jason doubts his mission and protests that he didn’t ask for the powers he has been given, but regardless of that this is a cup that won’t be taken from him and as happened with Strom and Riley in 28 Teeth how he deals with the choices presented to him will be the measure of the man. Add to this Drake’s pulse pounding, slightly breathless prose style and what you have is a compelling slice of fiction, one that confronts us with moral dilemmas and challenges the reader as to how he or she would respond. You could even, at a stretch, classify the story as a super-hero piece with a little more psychosis thrown in the mix than usual. I loved it.

Andy Deane’s novella NO TURNING BACK (Delirium e-book, 64pp, $4.99) hits the ground running, with a gang of hillbillies led by Hollis Greel turning up at an isolated gas station with a young woman as a prisoner. They have killed the girl’s family and proceed to rape her in turn, and when the girl escapes they give chase. She finds help with five teens in a car and the group take refuge in an isolated farmhouse, but this is when they discover that the hillbillies are far from being what they seem. With the teens barricaded in the basement and under siege, the scene is set for a life or death struggle against monsters, with occasional interruptions by hapless police officers whose main purpose in the narrative is to up the body count and demonstrate how hopeless it all is for our designated victims.

There’s not a lot that can usefully be said about this. It’s a fast paced story, with plenty of twists and turns of fortune, and some well-drawn characters, though we don’t get to know them all that well in the short time this novella takes to read. I was particularly taken with the way in which the nameless girl is transformed from victim to vengeance driven monster, someone prepared to do whatever it takes to get back at those who have wronged her, and in this her ultimate metamorphosis is hinted at. The level of violence, including sexual violence, is high, though justified by the nature of the story, dancing close to a place where it could all so easily become tacky and gratuitous/exploitative, but never crossing that line. I enjoyed the book while I was reading it, but at the same time never felt that I was dealing with anything special. It had about it a cinematic feel, but along the lines of a straight to DVD monster movie, possibly with the title Straw Dog Soldiers.

I wasn’t too keen on the last novella I reviewed by Lee Thompson, Down Here in the Dark back in #29, but standalone WHEN WE JOIN JESUS IN HELL (Delirium e-book, 47pp, $2.99) is much more the ticket. When he walks in early from work, Fist thinks that he has found his wife in bed with another man, but the situation is entirely different and the stage is set for tragedy. Driven mad by grief at what he has lost, Fist sets off back to his old stamping grounds, stopping in to mend bridges with his father before blazing a trail of destruction through the neighbourhood until he arrives at the warehouse the gang use as their base and a bloody confrontation with the young man he knows only as Jesus.

With its central concept of a once violent man who has been domesticated, but is prompted by circumstances to get back in touch with his inner beast, this novella reminded me of nothing so much as the Cronenberg film A History of Violence, though in the touches of arch-weirdness that litter the text – Fist trundling the corpses of his loved ones around in a shopping trolley, talking to them and pet lizard Bianca, his conversation with an artist who works with bodies – there is also more than a hint of the Lynch of Blue Velvet. Fist is a former boxer, retired because his wife wanted him to, but there is something in his nature that derived pleasure from beating other men and the events that occur allow him to get back to that place, a time in his life when all problems could be solved with his fists. He is rendered mad by what happens to him, but madness also appears to be liberating, though he takes little joy in what happens. At the heart of the story are questions about the nature of violence and how far we go before crossing a line. Fist’s dilemma underlines the failure of both society and the justice system, leaving a man to do what a man has got to do, if I’m allowed a cliché or two. It’s a powerful and affecting story, but if revenge is a dish best served cold, here it seems to offer little real sustenance for the diner. The violence shown is intense, and like the Deane above this is definitely not for the squeamish. I enjoyed it, though enjoyed may not be quite the right word.

There’s a weird, surreal quality to Norman Prentiss’ novella THE FLESHLESS MAN (Delirium e-book, 63pp, $2.99), so that you don’t really know what to believe, which of the events are real and which dreams, hallucinations, fantasies. Curtis has returned home to be in attendance when his mother dies of an incurable illness. His carer brother Glen is looking rather out of sorts and Nurse Lillian warns Curtis that Glen is anorexic. Curtis is dealing with issues of his own, mainly those focused on the unhappiness he felt when living at home, and he is hoping to make his peace with family before his mother passes away, only he keeps having dreams in which he puts a pillow over her face, and it then becomes that of his girlfriend Lauren, and when he calls Lauren she either doesn’t answer or is distant. Into this mix add the Fleshless Man, an age old creature in a tale recounted by the Nurse, only she brings this thing to visit his mother.

It’s hard here to untangle the real from the dream and hallucination, particularly as both narrators, Curtis and Glen, appear to be unreliable. The Fleshless Man represents the guilt felt by Curtis, but at the same time is an exteriorisation of illness, both that of Glen and his mother, with also the suggestion that Glen himself has been replaced by the Fleshless Man. The story is shot through with mystery and imagery that appals, the Fleshless Man himself as described sounding like a reasonable facsimile of Swift’s Struldbrugs. Underlying it all is an examination of the nature of families in crisis and sibling relationships put to the test. Curtis’ attempts to phone home reminded me Peter Mullan’s character in Session 9 and throughout this story there is very much the feel of something terrible taking place just off the page, out of the reader’s line of sight. This sense of mystery and ambiguity is maintained to the very end, with Curtis unsure if the person he hears creeping along the hallway in the wake of Nurse Lillian is Glen or the Fleshless Man. It’s a haunting note with which to end, the horrors of the everyday and mortality encapsulated in a footstep.

Last but not least, MOTHERLESS CHILD (Earthling Publications hb, 250pp, $40) by Glen Hirshberg opens with single mums Natalie and Sophie on a rare night out in Charlotte, North Carolina. At a bar called the Back Way Out they meet legendary musician Whistler and apparently both have sex with him, though on that point their memories are a bit hazy. Too late they realise that Whistler is a vampire and has started to turn them, believing that Natalie is his one true love. Fearing what they might do to their children the two women go on the run, fighting against both bloodlust and the desire to return home to their loved ones, with Sophie especially feeling the ache. They are pursued by both Whistler and his vampire mother, who has plans of her own to destroy the two rivals, and when Natalie’s mother and child are drawn into their circle the scene is set for a devastating showdown.

As vampire stories go this reminded me most of Abel Ferrara’s film The Addiction crossed with the grunge feel of Near Dark, with the two women fighting against their craving for blood, but there is extra depth thanks to the background that the author provides with hints of a mythology at an oblique angle to popular concepts of vampirism. Hirshberg’s bloodsuckers are not effete aristocrats, but ruthless and amoral predators who will stop at nothing to attain their ends, and who are far from indifferent to the benefits of technology – Whistler traces Natalie by going on twitter and asking his fans to alert him to her whereabouts. The characterisation of the vampires plays effective counterpoint to that of the humans turned vampire. Whistler and his maker are bitter rivals, one needing to kill the other to survive, their relationship a hollow echo of the friendship of the two women, their easy going banter and humour, and one side effect of their conversion is how that friendship is soured, the ties that bind transformed into a sick dependency.

The story is poignant and beautifully written, with each word on the page bearing significant weight, the rhythms of the prose carrying the reader along. Hirshberg is incredibly good at capturing and conveying subtle nuances of emotion and painting a picture of mingled decay and vitality, fertility festering in death if you wish. Nor will fans of the gorier aspects of vampirism be disappointed. There are some superb horror set pieces, such as when Sophie appears to be killed, and the three way fight at the end between Whistler, his mother and the others, with a truly stunning sting in the tail here, one that took me by surprise but with hindsight seemed entirely right for who the characters were. Hirshberg asks what can be stronger than vampirism and the answer that he comes up with is a mother’s love, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s offspring, and perhaps even kill your child to save her. These are the things that separate the women from the monsters.

There are a couple of other strong candidates, for one Simon Bestwick’s The Faceless reviewed earlier, but this book is the front runner for when I pick my best horror novel of 2012. The vampire has survived Twilight and is dead and kicking as ever, and it will remain so as long as there are writers of Hirshberg’s calibre to ring new changes on this venerable archetype.

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