Some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #37:-
Back in Black Static #2, when your friendly neighbourhood reviewer cast an appreciative eye over Michael Boatman’s debut collection God Laughs When You Die, I commented that his ‘work seems informed by a splatter punk sensibility, with gore laid on thick’. While I wouldn’t describe his latest book as meek and mild by any stretch of the imagination, that quality seems to have been toned down a bit for novel REVENANT ROAD (DarkFuse eBook, 191pp, $5.37).
It’s the story of Obadiah Grudge, who hunts down and kills monsters, and who writes down the stories of the dead. A successful horror writer, Obadiah learns the family heritage of monster hunting in the wake of his father’s death while engaged in such activity. Disbelieving at first, he is convinced when book critics keep popping out of the woodwork intent on killing him and his dead father turns up to explain the nature of reality. Enlisted in an organisation known as the Referral Service and teamed up with his father’s old partner Kowalski, Obadiah takes on a monster called the Yeren and deals with a threat from his childhood.
The stories in God Laughs were remarkable for their variety and, if not originality exactly, the way in which Boatman put a new spin on familiar material. This is more formulaic, and chances are if you watch TV or have been to the cinema lately the scenario in Revenant Road will offer few surprises. Think the Winchester boys from Supernatural, think Buffy, think Men in Black with Grudge as Smith and Kowalski as Jones, and then add grace notes courtesy of such enterprising productions as Beetlejuice and An American Werewolf in London. Better yet, don’t think that much at all. Just enjoy the book for what it is which, despite the bloody murder and mayhem that erupts at regular intervals in the story, or possibly because of it, is fast paced and fun, written with an engaging and acerbic curmudgeon for a hero and a TV series sensibility rather than anything more doomy and gloomy. It’s a lively outing that straddles the border between horror and paranormal adventure and doesn’t take itself at all seriously, while I suspect the author had a lot of fun casting his protagonist as a horror writer somewhat lacking in literary ability (euphemism – OG is Garth Merenghi with knobs on), and then for villains coming up with book critics and Oprah lookalike Juno Kementari, plus the usual crew from Demons R’Us. I enjoyed reading it, and chances are you will too, but don’t expect to remember it for too long after the reading is done. There’s nothing here that’s a keeper.
Keith Deininger’s THE NEW FLESH (DarkFuse eBook, 180pp, $5.27) is the most ambitious of these books and, with the exception of the Bassoff, the best written, with prose that effortlessly carries the reader along with the flow of the narrative, offering up turns of phrase that are elegantly apt and freshly minted descriptions that bring the story to life on the page. There’s a cinematic feel to the book; its tutelary spirits are Barker and Lynch, Carpenter and Cronenberg.
It’s also a book in which there’s rather a lot going on. Young Jake’s parents are separated. His father Harlan, who once wrote the screenplay for horror movie The New Flesh, now runs a porn website and yearns to see something new. Jake lives with alcoholic mother Jessica, whose old boyfriend Trevor has moved back into her life and taken charge of the home, though he doesn’t seem to have altered at all from when she knew him in high school. Harlan starts to receive strange videos in the post, snippets of film with hints of a snuff movie about them. Things escalate rather rapidly on both home fronts. Meanwhile Jake is dealing with the strange dreams he has of some entity referred to as the Melting Man, who may actually have first appeared as ZimZim, the imaginary/demonic friend of the child in Harlan’s movie (it’s complicated). Reality is starting to break down and Jake has a pivotal role to play in preserving the status quo.
There’s rather too much going on. I loved the whole thing with Harlan and the video tapes, the suggestion of something terrible taking place in the edges of the screen and behind the curtain, something even worse than the violent and unsettling sex scenes that take centre stage. I loved the intrusion of Trevor, the zombie like quality of the character and the feel of something very badly gone awry that he engenders in the reader. I loved the end scenes with the Melting Man, the vistas opened up of another cosmology, an alien metaphysics in which our religious beliefs are recast along humbler lines. I loved the stuff with the film of The New Flesh and the way in which it explored the interface between reality and dream and imagination, even if Deininger didn’t seem to know where to go with it once the idea had been put out there. I loved the ambiguity of it all, so that with hindsight we have no idea how much really took place, and how much was simply a psycho-drama played out inside Jake’s head and used to justify the acts of arson he may or may not have committed. And I loved the subtle, understated ending, with a twist that will stick in my memory for some time to come. I believed in the characters and the way in which they interacted, the back story of a young family falling short of its dreams and aspirations, in Harlan and Jessica two people who still respect and care for each other even though they are now living separate lives, the shared history they have, with Jake as the glue that binds them together still, a totally convincing human drama set against the more esoteric concerns of the text.
Each of these elements engaged my imagination and interest; each was fascinating in its own right, and worth a reader’s attention. But the gestalt didn’t work for me. Much as I appreciated the individual parts, I never felt that something greater than their sum was taking shape on the page. The overarching structure seemed like a fragile contrivance into which the various pieces were shoe horned, leaving us with something akin to a jigsaw that doesn’t quite resemble the picture on the lid of the box it came in. And so yes, I loved the book, for the ideas it contained and the quality of the prose. It made me think and continually surprised me, with the hint of something miraculous lurking at the back of it all, and for all these reasons I have no qualms about recommending it, even though, for me at least, The New Flesh fell at the final fence. Your mileage may differ, or it may be that you’re more insightful than I am. Lots of people are.
HELL GATE (DarkFuse eBook, 222pp, $5.29) by Elizabeth Massie is set in New York in the opening years of the twentieth century and is the story of young Suzanne Heath, who works the gate at Coney Island. Suzanne’s psychic ability causes her assistance to be sought by Lieutenant Granger of the NYPD when two people are found brutally murdered, their heads bludgeoned beyond recognition. Suzanne has visions, but nothing that can be pinned down. As more murders occur, the feeling grows in her that this is something to do with events in her past, obscured by amnesia. In flashback we learn how her mother, horrified by her daughter’s ability, which she laid at the door of the devil, sent her off to Miss Harrow’s School for Young Ladies. At that establishment, Suzanne honed her psychic ability, becoming one of a group calling themselves the Order of Morgan (after Morgan le Fay). As memories of the past gradually come back, Suzanne begins to suspect that one of her old gang may be behind the murders, and determines to find and confront the culprit, whatever the cost.
As with the Deininger, there is a lot going on here. Suzanne’s back story plays out somewhat like a period version of film The Craft and is done well, showing the frustration of both the psychically gifted and those who are women in a world dominated by men, so that we have some sympathy with the thwarted Tirzah even while abhorring her actions. The ‘present day’ incidents, with our villainess enlisting admirers of Aleister Crowley in her schemes and enslaving visitors to Coney, introduce an element of the super villain into the mix, while Suzanne’s psychic talents add another strand that enriches the narrative as a whole, and empowers a final twist that took me by surprise and added a note of almost unbearable sadness.
Where the book scores most though, is in its evocation of Coney Island, a lost time where amusement parks were so much more than the high tech machines of today, though every bit as finely tuned when it came to parting the punters from their money. Massie’s descriptions bring the time and place to vivid life, so that you can almost smell the candy floss and hear the cries of the barker on the midway. I defy anyone to read her work and not wish to visit this wonderland, the text reeking of nostalgia for a more innocent age, though at the same time one in which women and people of colour were second class citizens, a fact that comes over very well in the treatment meted out to both Suzanne and her friend Cittie Parker, whose income depends on playing the demeaning role of murderous savage for the amusement of white folk. And underlying this milieu in which hedonism and social conformism uneasily rub shoulders, we have an aggressive and uncompromising evangelism, seen in both the attitude of Suzanne’s mother to her daughter’s talent and the tent pole preachers with their fire and brimstone antecedents.
Not everything works. I wasn’t quite convinced by Granger’s inclusion of Suzanne in his investigations, despite Massie showing us how this came about through the intervention of the policeman’s daughter, and the theatrical show in which the villain displays her power seemed a little too fanciful for my liking, but these are minor complaints regarding an excellent work, one that deftly stage manages the material to both entertain the reader with an exciting story while at the same time celebrating, but not uncritical of, the past, and perhaps making us wonder if things have really changed all that much in some areas.
Last up is Jon Bassoff’s CORROSION (DarkFuse eBook, $5.14). It opens with a stranger arriving in the town of Stratton. Joseph Downs is an ex-serviceman, his face disfigured by horrible burns from the aftermath of an explosion. He decides to stay, gets a job at the landfill, gets involved with Lilith, a married woman whose husband doesn’t treat her right. But then a man comes to question his story of serving in the army. In the next section of the novel we meet a young man called Benton Faulk, whose father is committed to an asylum after attempting to raise his wife from the dead. Raised by a well-intentioned uncle and aunt, Benton becomes infatuated with a waitress, convinced that she is in love with him. We read how that plays out and we discover the connection between Benton and Joseph Downs, and we learn how history has a habit of repeating itself.
Though there’s undoubtedly a horror element, this short novel has more of a noir feel about it, with short sentences and unpunctuated speech that put me in mind of the style of James M. Cain, and plot strands that mirror work such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But if it is noir, then it’s also had a transfusion of the Hitchcock of Psycho with a chilling fate in store for some of the characters and madness bubbling away beneath the surface. The story is told at a ferocious pace, events playing into each other and building the picture of a mind and personality close to dissolution. Central is the first person narration of Benton Faulk, his speech patterns captured perfectly by the author to convey the sense of somebody who thinks that everything he does is entirely reasonable and can’t quite grasp why other people don’t agree. Confused as to his own identity, at back of all the posturing and posing, Faulk appears to be just the same as his father, wishing to keep the woman he loves with him for ever, even though she may not be as committed to their relationship as he is.
Noir or horror, what can’t be argued is that this novel is a gripping psychological thriller, the pitch perfect rendition of the story of a psychotic personality, one where the words burn off the page and the reader can feel sympathy for the monster, even as we are horrified by what he does, because at bottom Benton Faulk is just like we are, finding a good thing and wanting to cling on to it, no matter what. It’s only in his actions that he crosses the line, with sanity blurring into madness. Bassoff’s novel has been widely praised, and I’m more than happy to add my voice to that chorus of approval. One of the best books of the year so far.