Five reviews and the first part of feature on novellas published by DarkFuse that originally appeared in Black Static #41:-
Jeffrey Thomas returns to his Punktown universe and series character Jeremy Stake, private investigator and shape shifting mutant, for RED CELLS (DarkFuse eBook, 81pp, $3.49). Undercover, sort of, Stake is to serve a prison sentence in the Trans-Paxton Penitentiary, a facility in an artificially created pocket universe, and complications arise when he is unmasked. That’s the least of Stake’s problems though, as inmates are being killed in a particularly horrendous manner, their bodies disintegrated and only blood left behind, and Stake appears to be on the monster’s to do list, while certain other parties would like him to solve the crimes, with failure not an option.
The plot here isn’t especially elaborate, but Thomas manages to pack a lot in, bringing the character of Stake and the many layered universe he inhabits, with its mutants and aliens, to vivid life on the page, and with such skill that readers who haven’t encountered this milieu before won’t feel excluded. Onto the stem narrative, which is basically a prison story with science fiction trimmings, he grafts all the variations you’d expect, with our hero threatened by other inmates and corrupt officials, having to deal with double crosses and the burden of being an honourable man in a system that simply doesn’t have much truck with such virtues, all of which is just window dressing for the main plot thrust. At heart this is a first contact story, with men and aliens interacting in ways that, albeit unintentionally so, do not contribute to each other’s well-being and at the climax of the story Thomas gives us an open ending, with a codicil that shows a new player strutting out on the Punktown stage. It’s good solid storytelling, fast paced and at times rather basic, but never less than entertaining.
There’s a similar science fictional back drop and setting to MARROW’S PIT (DarkFuse eBook, 43pp, $3.49) by Keith Deininger. The remnants of humanity live on inside the Machine, while outside the Maelstrom still rages. They have no purpose in life except to serve the Machine and obey the tenets of their religion. Ballard’s dream of life with his beloved Laura has turned into a nightmare, as she constantly belittles and abuses him, all while seeing a lover. When things turn sour he is forced to leave the Machine and travel to a place his father showed him when he was a child called Marrow’s Pit.
Just as with previous work by Keith Deininger that I’ve read, I had some trouble getting my head round some aspects of this. He writes well, and the picture of henpecked Ballard (the name may be significant) who had dreams of so much more for himself, is powerfully evoked on the page. Similarly the pointlessness of life within the Machine is perfectly conveyed, with echoes of the dystopian environments found in films such as Logan’s Run and The Island, added to which the crazy fundamentalism that holds sway within the Machine, placing emphasis on overcoming the Snake, is a well done picture of religious totalitarianism and the perils of mob rule. Where it went pear shaped for me was with the ending, which seemed to imply Ballard wasn’t human at all, so much as a thinking component in the Machine, with his escape bringing about a realisation of the true nature of reality. Or perhaps it was meant to be seen as a metaphor encapsulating the futility of the character’s existence. I’m really not sure, but either way from dystopian fable to something akin to surrealism was a shift that didn’t work for me, bringing up questions about the point of it all and the suspicion that, having come up with this intriguing scenario, the writer didn’t really know what to do with the material.
DECEIVERS (DarkFuse eBook, 49pp, $3.49) by Kelli Owen is told from the viewpoint of the bereaved Matt, whose wife was murdered in a hotel room while away on a business trip. Going through her returned luggage, he finds a notebook and upon reading it discovers a whole new side to his beloved Tania. At first it appears that she sleeps around, taking men’s ties as souvenirs, but then an even darker vision intrudes courtesy of the detective investigating Tania’s murder, with the possibility that Matt’s wife might have been a serial killer.
Of course it’s not that straightforward, but before we get into all that a warning that plot spoilers lie ahead, as I’m afraid I can’t pin down why this doesn’t work for me without going down that particular route.
Author Kelli Owen tries to sell the reader a dummy, but the plot is too contrived to pass muster. We are asked to believe that the police when investigating a dead body found in a hotel room won’t go through the victim’s luggage and find and read the tell-tale notebook, instead simply returning it to her husband. Owen then has to go through silly plot contortions explaining why Matt doesn’t recognise that the writing in the notebook isn’t his wife’s, and he takes an awfully long time reading through a few journal entries, Owen eking the notebook out to War and Peace length for dramatic effect (okay, I’m exaggerating here, but it really is that preposterous). And though Owen slips a shiver of guilt into the mix to ground Matt’s feelings, his willingness to believe the worst about the woman he claims to love so much and the temper tantrums he throws don’t exactly endear the character to the reader. To me Deceivers reads like an idea somebody had, but which fell apart at the fleshing out stage, only they were too committed to abandon ship and so just sailed on in the hope that everything would come together, but sadly it didn’t.
In Sandy De Luca’s HELL’S DOOR (DarkFuse eBook, 91pp, $2.99) a sadistic killer is preying on the working girls of Providence, beheading his victims and eating their flesh. The prime suspect is pimp Ramsay Wolfe, who owns the S&M club Hell’s Door and has a whole devil worship thing going on, though most believe this is only a ruse to keep her stable of girls in order. Detectives Lacey Powers and John Demmings go undercover at the club, posing as a couple who might be into the sort of games Ramsay likes to play, and the pimp is definitely attracted to Lacey. Meanwhile the murders continue with the killer widening his victim pool and the detectives having personal problems, intercut with all of which are the first person musings of the monstrous Gabriel, as he reflects on and commits his heinous deeds. The stage is set for a shocking denouement.
This reads rather like a condensed version of David Lindsey’s Mercy, with a fast paced and exciting plot, some convincing S&M detail to add verisimilitude, and intriguing characters, not least of them Gabriel, whose head and tormented personality Sandy De Luca does an excellent job of getting inside. It is exploitative in a sense – De Luca has nothing insightful to offer regarding the S&M scene, or any shattering truths to impart about the genesis of serial killers, simply using them as a backdrop to her story, but she does so in a sly way to suggest she could tell us a thing or two if she wished. There are scenes of mayhem that will linger in the memory and the end twist, if not a complete surprise, was well handled. I had a good time with this and look forward to reading more by the author.
And in this instant, more takes the form of MESSAGES FROM THE DEAD (DarkFuse eBook, 99pp, $2.99), a work I feel is even more effective. Unhappy in her marriage and job, Donna decides to give her talent as an artist room to grow by taking classes at Castell Community College, which was previously a hospital for sick children. Bones and a primitive statue have been found in the walls of the building, with the latter being adopted by the local art community as Mada, a god of creativity. Foremost in this movement is Donna’s teacher Alex, who practises a form of paganism or devil worship and encourages her students to get in touch with their dark side. It isn’t long before people start dying and Donna begins to see and communicate with dead people, but the truth behind what is happening goes far back into the past and implicates her family.
This is an ambitious work, one that focuses on a young woman’s desire to turn her life around, but then complicates matters with a plethora of supernatural effects. Donna’s dissatisfaction with her husband, who she yet cares for very much, her questions about her sexuality and wish to make something more of herself all come across very well. Added to this, there’s a feeling of unreality about much of what is going down, with the reader confused in a way similar to that of the viewer in Sixth Sense, so that we don’t know if the characters Donna interacts with are flesh and blood, vengeful spirits, or simply figments of her imagination. Castell itself, with its history of tragedy, is beautifully realised on the page, a dark and brooding presence that dominates the story. Equally there is plenty of interesting stuff about art and the things that drive the creative individual. It’s a short book but one with a lot going on, and all of it is good. I thought it was the best of the works I’ve seen by DeLuca. I loved it.
(TO BE CONTINUED)