Month: August 2013

Summer Horror Roundup

Though the days still blister, at night there is a welcome chill and the softest whiff of decay. It’s a beautiful smell, and within a few weeks we’ll hit full-on autumn. Though we’re excited about the fall, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss some of the summertime horror we’ve enjoyed throughout the year.

The Hole

William Meikle

Now this is a book I can relate to: hard drinking, manual labor, mines, sinkholes, battles with subterranean evil.The Hole

Ah, to be 23 again.

From the start, this fast-paced small-town horror shudders with ominosity. (Is ominosity a word? If not, it should be.) Intense headaches and nosebleeds afflict the townsfolk, and then the earth comes out from under their feet.

Literally.

A giant sinkhole opens in a back yard (leading to a hilarious septic tank scene) and begins swallowing up the countryside like the San Andreas Fault. At first, the backwoods residents fear a natural disaster.

But then they notice the creatures rising up from the hole.

And so the horror begins…

Enjoy this quick-hit tale of small-town suspicion, working-class gumption and a long-buried secret that won’t stay dead.

Doors

Daniel Brako

Being a dorky loner, I spent most of my summers watching late-night reruns of The Twilight Zone. That certainly figured intoDoors my attraction to Doors, which concerns a psychologist working with a patient who sees doors everywhere he looks. Then, the doctor begins to see them too.

I’ve always loved the idea of another world overlapping with our own, only visible if we squint in just the right light. It has the appeal of a conspiracy theory. It’s the world, just slightly askew. All around us, invisible, with dire consequences. A world within a world. (Don’t get me started on quark theory.)

Having worked in mental health, I’ve conversed with many schizophrenics, delirious alcoholics and addicts in the throes of a psychotic break. Their storytelling has the effect of quicksand—you don’t realize how engrossed you are in their story until you’re up to your neck. They give you a plausible setting and people, then a string of plausible events occur, followed by a string of less-plausible events, then even less and less plausible, and then suddenly, boom, the narrator reveals that the gunshot was stopped by the metal plate inside his head and the rebounding bullet struck the shooter instead.

It’s a dissociative feeling. Everything seemed so normal, so sane, twisting only in slight degrees before you realize it’s all a delusion. Or is only some of it? That’s what makes it so creepy.

It’s our world, slightly askew.

That’s what I was hoping for in Doors, and it begins promising enough. The manic patient begins his tale, and I got that tingle of dissociation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The psychologist, David Druas, buys into the narrative too quickly. I wanted more push-back from David, mainly to prolong that quicksand effect, but also for verisimilitude: No legitimate psychologist would be convinced so quickly.

At this point I realized that the novel rushed through this part to get to the pulse-pounding events that follow. That’s unfortunate. I was hoping for more of a psychological head-trip.

Meeting the book on its own terms, this is a well-conceived novel with thrilling and engaging sequences. And I can certainly except the supernatural in horror fiction. But I wish the story hewed closer to plausibility so I could longer relish that feeling of slowly being drawn in to a nightmare.

The Last Whisper in the Dark

Tom Piccirilli

Yes, we have reviewed this book already, but it’s worth repeating. This is a tremendous book by a gifted author. Put this on yourWhisper “must-read” list.

And for anyone who missed the earlier review, here you are:

There are not enough superlatives when discussing Tom Piccirilli. The man is a brilliant and diverse writer: He’s won awards for his horror, fantasy, thrillers and even poetry—bagging the prestigious Bram Stoker award on four occasions.

Previous novels, such as Shards, A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, have shocked and terrified, but with his new release, The Last Whisper in the Dark, Piccirilli takes us to a far more tender place.

A tender place, it turns out, just as disarming as his nightmares.

I’ll sum it up this way: I was shedding tears by page three. I think the only other book that has ever had me crying this early in the narrative is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Piccirilli has a knack for character development and storytelling, and The Last Whisper in the Dark, a sequel to 2012’s The Last Kind Words, may be his deepest work yet.

Concerning Terrier (Terry) Rand, a young thief from a family of small-time criminals, Piccirilli has given us a protagonist as sympathetic as he is fearless. On the surface, the story is about the disappearance of Terry’s friend Chub and the ensuing search that drives him head on into gangsters, killers and a femme fatale.

But on a deeper level, this is a tale of honor and family and the clumsy way we go about expressing our feelings to the ones we love. The Rands are a proud and tragic clan, with dementia and criminality in their blood—as well as an outlaw tendency that keeps them on the fringes of society.

But their strongest trait is honor. Terry is loyal to an estranged friend who stole the only woman he ever loved. He quietly looks out for his sister, even as she rebels against him and helps desecrate their dead brother’s grave. He remains devoted to a family that can occasionally be distant and dysfunctional, but always has each other’s backs.

You can mess with Terry, but you’d best not fuck with his family.

You’ll fall in love with Terry by the end of the first chapter, and you’ll be cheering him on the rest of the novel. And when it’s done, you’ll applaud Piccirilli for this tender bit of noir literature.

Piccirilli is an established icon within the horror realm, but he has yet to crack through to the mainstream, which is unfortunate. This is a writer worthy of notice, and hopefully this book is the one that reaps him the exposure and attention he deserves.

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M.K. Wren, A Gift Upon the Shore

It’s interesting reading M.K. Wren’s classic novel nearly a quarter century since its release in 1990. For one thing, a nuclearGift apocalypse sounds downright quaint and makes me eerily nostalgic for my childhood fears of nuclear annihilation.

Aside from that, A Gift Upon the Shore is timeless—and even prescient. Following a wave of destruction, two women begin building a library in coastal Oregon, dedicated to preserving the great works of literature, history, and, by extension, civilization. Unfortunately, their only neighbors are a group of fundamentalist survivors who promote the destruction of all books other than the Bible.

In 2013, libraries and bookstores are struggling, Texas school boards are editing history and I downloaded the novel, in a matter of seconds, from a Web site onto my e-reader (unthinkable in 1990).

OK, Wren isn’t exactly Nostradamus. Folks were probably declaring the death of books within hours of Guttenberg’s invention, and fundamentalists have far less sway than they did during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Even Salman Rushdie has been able to come out of hiding.

But like Wren’s protagonists, digital publishing has guaranteed that our literary history will live on, from the freedom of publishing in the medium to noble endeavors like Project Guttenberg.

A Gift Upon the Shore remains a wondrously beautiful novel, whatever the era, and one worthy of a revisit or a first look.

Review: Of Dice and Men

D&D is a cultural phenomenon that has lasted decades, survived the sophistication of video games and artificial intelligence, rival RPGs and even the Satanic Panic. It’s goneDice and Men from nerd pastime to geek chic to sociological interest, and now its history has been documented in the wonderful Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, a nostalgic romp through the author’s (and my) childhood.

Ewalt, a senior editor at Forbes and self-described “writer, gamer, geek,” has done a great service to anyone who, with sweaty palms, has had to make a campaign-defining saving throw (or at least knows what that means). His smooth writing style and flair for narrative pacing makes the story of this greatest of games one of general interest, even if you’ve never tossed the 20-sided die.

There are two key threads running through the book. The first, of course, is the history of D&D, from its precursors through its growing pains, its competitors and controversies, and finally its legacy as second- and third-generation dungeon crawlers have been drawn to the table. The second thread is Ewalt’s personal tale of rekindling his love for D&D in adulthood.

While both storylines are interesting, the content of the historical narrative is a bit more compelling, particularly due to the big personality of its founder, Gary Gygax. But the personal narrative is most affecting because it traces a familiar thread: Imaginative loner boy discovers D&D; becomes hooked; discovers women; hangs up the broad sword and chainmail; rediscovers D&D; realizes you can take the halfling out of the dungeon, but you can’t take the dungeon out of the halfling.

Ewalt and I have a lot in common.

The book has been described as being similar to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, but I disagree with that description. Economics are addressed, but this book is truly about passion, not money. Which is fitting. At the end of every D&D campaign comes the distribution of treasure that the group has acquired, but this is not the reason for playing. The true reward is the quest to find and slay the dragon guarding that treasure.

The only downside to the book is the fantasy sequences in which Ewalt recounts fictional events from his weekly campaigns. Unfortunately, these feel forced and, for me at least, didn’t really add much to the narrative. I feel comfortable in critiquing this element of the book as I have done this myself.

But aside from that, this is an amazing book, a perfect summer read and hopefully the first of many books from Ewalt.

Douglas Murray, Islamophilia

I must confess: About a third of the way through Douglas Murray’s Islamophilia, I tossed it onto the discard pile. (islamophiliaOK, not really, since I was reading it on my Nook.) But before I abandoned this book, my conscience got the better of me. I re-launched the file and read to the end.

I am very glad I did.

If I were to blurb Islamophilia, I would say, “Douglas Murray has provided us with a document that is challenging, bitter, distasteful, and difficult to digest. And it may well be one of the most important books of the past few years.” (Hey Mr. Murray, don’t forget me when the print edition goes to press.)

In this short book (more of an extended essay), Murray vents over post-9/11 media treatment of Islam, which he considers to be inconsistent with treatment of other religions. For Murray, Islam is like an update on the Seinfeld episode when a reporter thought Jerry and George were a couple, prompting qualified denials (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”).

Unfortunately, this is not a book with a strong sense of humor, and it reads more like a polemic than an essay. In the early pages, Murray’s anger overshadows his argument. For example, Murray expends much energy going after the 1001 Inventions multimedia education project, which spotlights Muslim contributions to science and technology. He argues that the exhibit crosses over into historical revisionism, and perhaps he’s right. I’ve never seen the exhibit myself, but he’s not the first person to make this critique. But regardless of the factual accuracy, his mocking tone is more befitting a late-night drunk dialogue.

Here is where I shut it down.

I intentionally avoid politics in this column, particularly because I believe—excepting the extremely polarized rants on the nonfiction bestseller list—that literature is one of the few uniting or at least neutral spaces remaining. (I would say animals and football are the others. Folks love their dogs no matter where they stand on universal health care.)

But due to the subject of this book, I feel some disclosure is appropriate. I am a liberal, yet what drew me to this book is that I agree with Murray, a neoconservative. It’s an area of contention with my liberal friends, who apply inconsistent standards toward Islam. Were the Catholic church to require women to wear hijabs and be accompanied by men in public, it would be denounced as part of the church’s war on women. But when mandated by Islam, it’s dismissed as a cultural difference.

I’m not asking my liberal counterparts to feel one way or another about these religions, but as a matter of intellectual integrity, I do expect them to be consistent.

So, I was drawn to the thesis of this book, but turned off by the tone. What made me pick it back up?

Cartoons.

When it comes to Islam and art, there are three events that are indefensible: the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (for writing a novel); the brutal assassination and near-decapitation of Theo Van Gough (because of an 11-minute film); and the more than 200 people who have been killed in response to Danish cartoons.

And then there was the censorship of the animated show South Park and the death threats aimed at the show’s creators. Murray writes:

“This, however, is the new normal. Cartoons are censored. Any possible offence to Muslims is averted by series and broadcast networks that routinely and enjoyably satirise everything else under the sun, including all other religions.”

Here, Murray hits his stride. He addresses the violent backlash against artists and how it has led to pre-emptive self-censorship. For example, The Jewel of Medina, a book Random House dropped for fear of attack—a merited fear as weeks later a book publisher in Britain was fire-bombed for agreeing to release the book (which Murray says has still not been released in Britain).

What’s happening now, he argues, is self-censorship for fear of reprisal. Something absent following critiques of other faiths:

“Artists and writers have been caught off-guard. Having poked at empty hornets’ nests for so many years they have forgotten the courage required to do the necessary poking at full ones.”

Murray then sounds the call for bravery and the courage to support artistic freedom. He closes with some of the book’s most thoughtful passages and proposes solutions to overcoming both phobias and philias.

It is this last part that really elevates Murray’s argument, and makes me glad I stuck with the book.

Like I said, this is a difficult read, but an important one. I often disagree with Murray, and at times he made me cringe, but in the end, his argument is thorough and thoughtful and worthy of consideration.

Review: Abominable Science

If you were like me growing up, you had a stack of Weekly Reader books about the spooky and the supernatural at your bedside. These were the source of maAbominable_Science_cover-576px-300x450ny restless nights for me, in particular books on Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. My friend Todd still speaks with reverence about the Bigfoot episode of In Search Of… with Leonard Nimoy.

We are the ideal audience for Abominable Science, co-authored by a scientist and a writer who was obsessed with the mythology of cryptids (a fancy term for a creature of legend whose existence has not been documented).

The nuts and bolts of the book are simple, yet genius. The authors examine the cases of legendary cryptids (Bigfoot, Nessy, the Yeti) and consider the scientific evidence, essentially disproving, or at least discrediting, their existence.

The first part of this equation is great fun. The second part is like when the mean kids first tell you there is no Santa Claus.

In other words, buzz kill.

The authors devote too much space to debunking the “evidence” of cryptids. Look, we know they’re not real. What makes these creatures so interesting is not whether or not they exist, but rather in the mysteries and folklore that surround them. If Bigfoot did exist, he would no longer be a mystery. He’d be a zoo exhibit. While it is important to show where the science doesn’t add up, the debunking feels a bit like a deposition at times, which isn’t nearly as much fun. (Just ask Paula Deen.)

The other issue I have with Abominable Science is redundancy. The book is divided into sections addressing each of the cryptids individually. Unfortunately, the commonalities between the cases make parts of the narrative redundant.

The result is diminishing returns.

The Bigfoot section is riveting. The Loch Ness section is interesting and very well written, but replace an American forest with a Scottish lake and you’ve got more or less the same storyline. By the third section, we know what to expect: unreliable eyewitness accounts, grainy photographs, unidentified footprints, overactive imaginations and outright deceptions, etc.

So, the book might have been arranged so that it addressed the similarities between the legends at once rather than divided by cryptid.

I also wish the authors had a bit more fun with it. The narrative is playful at times, but the hyperactive debunking misses the point that these legends are, more than anything, fun. Look, we know professional wrestling isn’t true competition along the lines of football or baseball, but its appeal lies not in its verisimilitude, but rather in the storytelling, the characters and the spectacle itself.

Otherwise, wouldn’t WWE have implemented instant replay a long time ago? (Even Bud Selig would have the sense to review and overturn illegal tags and errant three counts.) They would also probably do something about those metal folding chairs that always seem to find their way into the ring.

But perhaps I doth protest too much. At its heart, Abominable Science is not intended to be a buzz kill. It is an enjoyable read that will have you laughing out loud at times—and you might even learn a little science along the way.

So, if you’re the type that can’t pass up a Bigfoot or ghost hunting special on cable television, you will love this book. And though it will confirm that the cryptids in question don’t exist, it won’t stop us from tuning in. If anything, it reinforces the universality of creature mythology and our attraction to fantasy and mystery. (Earlier this year, Syfy debuted its new show, Joe Rogan Questions Everything, with a
full hour devoted to hunting Bigfoot.)

We will always be obsessed with the unknown. We will be happily drawn into those blurry shadows of the natural world. I’m happy to report that we will always remain… In search of…