Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #34 as part of a feature on DarkFuse novellas:-
Author Michael McBride seems to have a thing for the word ‘blind’ in his titles. The last book I reviewed by him was the novella Blindspot and now there’s SNOWBLIND (DarkFuse eBook, 68pp, $2.99), which opens with a man stumbling through the door of a restaurant, terribly wounded and close to death, and then in flashback we get the story of how he ended up in such a state. Four men are off on a hiking trip in the Rocky Mountains when things go disastrously wrong: a blizzard comes on suddenly and one of them is badly injured in a fall. Seeking a shortcut to safety they stray from the ‘beaten path’, becoming hopelessly lost in the wilderness, then realising that they are being stalked by hostile creatures unknown to science, a variation of Bigfoot or Sasquatch. Herded to the ruins of an ancient building, the men find there evidence that they are not the first humans to encounter such a fate.
This is a short, action packed novella, one that can’t help but bring to mind Adam Nevill’s novel The Ritual, but also reading in part like an above the ground version of film The Descent with a male cast. The characters are well drawn, each with their own distinguishing traits, and the interaction between them plays out well, presenting a convincing picture of townies lost in the wilderness. The hostility and changeable nature of the landscape is effectively captured, with the Bigfoot menace cranking up the tension just that little bit more and setting the stage for an exciting fight for survival, all of which is undercut by the savage and bitterly ironic ending, with the man who lived to tell the tale not realising how mad he has become, that the qualities that enabled him to endure are now detrimental to his continued wellbeing. It’s a good story, albeit one with nothing much to it beyond a desire to entertain and show that nature is more monstrous than we can possibly imagine, despite all the warnings in our horror fiction
Scheduled for release in June, F9 (DarkFuse eBook, 63pp, $2.99) is the second novella by McBride in my review pile, and somewhat more ambitious. It presents the story of Dr. Ellis Randall Harding, who in 1994 survived a spree killing at Norlin Library on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. The incident left him with a lifelong fascination about spree killers and led him into a career in neurology. He develops a theory that where the creation of spree killers is concerned geographical factors come into play, and when a killer goes into a coma Harding has the chance to check out his theories with advanced brain scanning techniques, but he learns rather more than he bargained for.
This is a fascinating short piece, with echoes of Wisconsin Death Trip in the mix. The reality of spree killing is made savagely real, with actual shootings portrayed and juxtaposed with the infodump style sections, the two informing each other, while Harding’s thoughts on neurology add an extra dimension, touching on free will and determinism. The characters are well realised, with Harding driven by feelings of inadequacy and guilt over past cowardice, and the suggestion that simple obsession might be every bit as responsible for what happens as the explanation Harding comes up with, victims cracking under the strain. The ending is slightly predictable, but not to the extent that it undermines the body of the story and I felt so intrigued that I wanted to check the details on the killings McBride lists to find out if any of them were genuine, or all just figments of his imagination. Ultimately what we get is familiar, but the oblique telling makes it seem fresh. I loved F9 and wanted it to go on even longer, but McBride was right to finish where he did, the perfect moment of quiet between the storms, and as a side effect of reading this novella I’m now seeing the song ‘Amazing Grace’ in an entirely different light.
When William Meikle’s CLOCKWORK DOLLS (DarkFuse eBook, 59pp, $2.99) opens Dave Burns is in police custody and reveals to his interrogator the chain of circumstances that have led to his being accused of murdering his close friends and the woman he loved. Burns is by all accounts, including his own, something of a loser, bitter about missed opportunities in love and business, unhappy with his life. At a dinner party he meets Maggie, who introduces the idea of asking the universe for what we want. Dave is sceptical, but goes along with it anyway, but then when things start to happen for the other people who made the wish he realises there may be something to it, only his own wish was somewhat detrimental to the hopes and aspirations of everybody else. Bad things start to happen.
I know William Meikle’s writing chiefly through his pastiches of the work of others, the role of pulp chameleon one at which he is very good indeed and never less than entertaining, but if this is an example of what he can come up with under his own steam then it’s something I most definitely want to see more of. With some fine tuning the plot could pass for an impersonation of the Final Destination movies, heavy on the inevitable quality of it all and with some inventive methods of disposal. Where it rises above the status of killing ground is in the story’s conceptual and psychological underpinning. At the narrative’s heart is the character of Dave himself, adeptly brought to life on the page, a man so bitter and resentful that he just keeps throwing the good things in his life out after the bad. His sourness is powerfully counterpointed by the other characters, and the way in which he dooms them all through spite is convincingly done. At the end he is a man who destroys himself, but bringing everyone else down with him. In the final analysis Meikle seems to reject the idea of karma and the universe intervening in human life, reducing us all to the clockwork dolls of the title, instead squarely placing blame and responsibility at the door of a small minded man who can’t rise above the desire for vengeance, not even when he sees the terrible consequences of that wish.
(TO BE CONTINUED)