Month: October 2015

Recommended Reads: Halloween Highlights

 

Tis the high holidays of horror: Samhain, Dia de los Muertos and Guy Fawkes’ Day. Here’s a trinity of new fiction releases to get you in the spirit of the season.

Lamentation

by Joe Clifford

While I enjoy the occasional police procedural or detective tale, I find it difficult to relate to those worlds. As a writer LamentationI see the appeal of having a strong, resourceful protagonist whom you can throw into high-drama situations knowing they can believably fight their way out of it.

But as a reader, I’ve always been drawn to the blue-collar characters who stumble in over their heads.

Enter Jay Porter. He’s a menial laborer living paycheck to paycheck, burdened by stress, bills and an estranged lover and their small child. Porter lives in a remote, oppressive town, cut-off from civilization by the New England winter.

Clifford so ably captures this world that it made me uncomfortable. From the opening scene, I felt edgy, depressed. I carried the full weight of Porter’s burden as my own.

That’s some damn fine writing.

That uneasy feeling in the belly swells when Porter is called down to the police station to pick-up his drug-addled brother, who is spouting off conspiracy theories involving town elites. It is further evidence of his brother’s decline, he believes, until his brother’s business partner turns up dead.

As he wades deeper into the fog, Porter unearths a dark secret that puts the life of himself and his brother in danger. With limited funds or capable weapons, and zero well-placed connections, Porter must rely on a loyal friend and an old rival.

Lamentation is my kind of novel. There are no experts, no sharpshooters, no aces in sleeves. There is no posse to rescue the hero. Just a quartet of hard-luck locals with long odds up against the wealthy, powerful and corrupt.

Porter is not the most likable character, or self-aware, but you’ll be rooting for him throughout. I’m already excited for the sequel, December Boys, due out next summer.

 

A Cold White Fear

by R.J. Harlick

Speaking of blue-collar heroes, meet Meg Harris, star of Harlick’s series of thrillers set in remote Canada. It may beA Cold White Fear the holidays, but merry-making is not on her list. Rather Harris is stewing over a blowout fight she’d had with her husband. Now he has left, and she is certain he won’t return for a few days.

Outside, a snowstorm rages, knocking out the power. Harris is alone with just her lapdog, Shoni, and the neighbor boy from the reservation. Then comes a knock on the door. It’s two men in distress, and, well, it wouldn’t be much of a plot if she didn’t let them in!

Home invasion tales can quickly turn blasé, but Harlick infuses this time-worn trope with fresh life. She raises the stakes by revealing the complexity of the two men. One of them, who grew up on the nearby Migiskan Anishinabeg Reserve, knows Harris’ great-aunt. He’s a local. They have common connections, and the reader wants nothing more than for things to go well.

They don’t.

Harlick is brilliant at creating and sustaining tension, and she keeps us on edge throughout what is essentially a single-set play. A Cold White Fear (publishing date Nov. 7) is like a rough acid trip. You know you’re going to survive it, but you’ll have to white-knuckle it all the way.

While I recommend this book for any fan of suspense, horror or cold-weather claustrophobia, I did mark it down from a five-star rating to a four due to some plot and character turns in the latter chapters. Harris is a strong, resourceful character throughout the story. Vulnerable, yes, but self-sufficient, and I think she gets short-changed in the end.

Harris is not someone who needs rescue. She uses her wits and courage to navigate a harrowing scenario for most of the book, and the ending doesn’t read true with the rest of the narrative.

Despite that, I give A Cold White Fear a strong recommendation. Others may feel differently about the ending, and even though I wasn’t crazy about it, it was worth the ride.

This was the first Harlick book I’ve read, and I look forward to reading more Meg Harris mysteries.

 

Man Made Murder

by Z. Rider

Man Made Murder is a high-octane thriller for those who like their horror on the supernatural side. Dean Man Made MurderThibodeaux is talented, but frustrated guitarist (for the band Man Made Murder) who just wants to score some biker weed before the group begins its next tour.

There is a symmetry to what comes next. His band is changing… and then so is he. But into what? I’ll just say that Type O Negative would’ve killed for Dean’s street cred after his throwdown with the biker in a creepy old house.

Dean’s transformation sets him on a collision course with revenge-minded Carl Delacroix.

Man Made Murder is a rock and roll horror show and act I in the Blood Road Trilogy.

Advertisements

Review: The Monstrous

The Monstrous

Ed. by Ellen Datlow

Funny how some words have lost their meaning over time. Take “awesome” or “sublime.” Historically, these were Monstrouswords of great consequence, usually associated with nature, not a text-message autocomplete. Living in the Rocky Mountains, I experience the truly awesome and sublime often. The top of a 14’er is the perfect intersection of unspeakable beauty and profound terror.

The point being that you should bring a more elemental perspective to Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, The Monstrous. The “monsters” here do not conform to the creature-feature definition. Rather, these are encounters with the beautiful and the displaced. Characters confront things that shouldn’t be and must reconcile these irregulars with natural law.

Yes, there are literal monsters in this collection, but more often than not the stories in The Monstrous live in our periphery. The terror doesn’t always come from the creatures, but from the intersection of different worlds.

The essential story of this collection, in my opinion, is “Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey. It begins with a classic horror trope of innocent laborers unearthing something beyond their comprehension. But rather than something horrible, they encounter something emotionally overwhelming, so much so that witnesses come away with vacant expressions.

This is not terror, but fascination. This is the thrill of the unexplained. I had a strong emotional reaction to this story because it really delved into the subconscious (fittingly set, of course, in the depths of a mine). If you’ve ever cried for no reason, or been overwhelmed by the beauty of something, you’ll get it. From start to finish, “Giants in the Earth” is a deeply impacting tale.

As always, Caitlín Kiernan delivers a satisfying haunt with “The Beginning of the Year Without Summer,” a psychedelic twist of science and speculation that unnerves with its unresolved tension. Like much of her writing, it put me in the mind of Bradbury — and that’s a headspace I enjoy.

Once again, Datlow has compiled an all-star lineup of the biggest names and rising stars in horror. Familiar bylines (Kim Newman, Peter Straub, Brian Hodge, Stephen Graham Jones) make contributions, with Jones’ “Grindstone” being one of the strongest in the collection.

Among the finest tales is A.C. Wise’s “Chasing Sunset,” which puts a Lovecraftian twist on father-son conflict. It’s short and brutal and, like the rest of the collection, disturbingly fun.

But perhaps the darkest offering in the lot is Livia Llewellyn’s “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer,” a thoroughly troubling epistolary that reads like a modern re-telling of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but set in the Pacific Northwest. Llewellyn is willing to delve into the nightmare spaces even Lovecraft feared to tread.

For my money, this is the official book for Halloween 2015, a collection of shadows, scales, flesh and bone that is beautiful and unsettling all at once. You will recognize some of the monsters in here as ones you’ve faced in your darkest anxiety dreams — and others that you’ve never imagined before, but won’t be able to forget.

Recommended Reads: Writer’s Edition

 

The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer

Yellowlees Douglas

Cambridge University Press

Most books on writing have the same fatal flaw: They may be inspiring and informative, but they seldom offer The Reader's Brainpractical advice. Typically, you’ll get some variation of the following: write something every day; write what you know; active voice; character before plot.

Got it.

Yellowlees Douglas wants to change that with The Reader’s Brain. Drawing on science rather than Strunk and White, she offers tips on how to be a more effective writer, whether you’re penning the Great American Novel, writing a grant or constructing an internal memo.

I spent three years and thousands of dollars in an MFA program where it was bad form to talk about sentence structure. Seeing Douglas give it the attention it deserves was refreshing.

The Reader’s Brain is not just a collection of tips and tricks. Douglas provides a compelling narrative, sharing anecdotes from her years as an author and professor, to guide the reader through the chapters.

The difficulty with reviewing a book like this is that it’s hard to give details without giving away too much information. Since it’s on the book jacket, I can say that it centers around what Douglas calls the five C’s: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision and cadence. In exploring these concepts, Douglas shows how to utilize devices such as priming and causation to create narratives that capture the reader’s attention and keeps your words in their memory.

A worthy addition to any writer’s nook.

 

Metamedia: American Book Fictions and Literary Print Culture after Digitization

Alexander Starre

University of Iowa Press

Want to start a conversation with me at a party? Mention House of Leaves. I’ll wax ecstatic on Mark Z. Danielewski’s Metamediamasterpiece for hours. So of course I loved Metamedia, an exploration of literature in the digital age, which uses House of Leaves as its jumping-off point.

For those unfamiliar with Danielewski’s debut novel, it’s… well, it’s not easy to explain. The five-word synopsis I’d offer is that it’s a found-footage film in book form, but what does “book” mean here? Sure, it’s on paper, with binding, but with its manipulation of text (sometimes sideways or upside-down or spread over numerous pages) Leaves could never be reduced to just the words themselves.

This leads Starre to ask, “How does the idea of a literary work change when we think of it not as a text, but as an embodied artifact?”

As a lover of both physical books and digital technology, I have no bias in this area. I have a classic Nook, a Kindle tablet and boxes of books that I won’t get through in my lifetime. I’ll read any time, any place, any way, and I appreciate the tone with which Starre discusses the topic.

If you’re looking for a work that romanticizes the digital frontier or deifies the paperback, this is not it. Metamedia applies history and theory and offers a unique perspective that will be of interest to academics and general readers.

And will hopefully inspire those who haven’t to read House of Leaves.

 

Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War

Eric Bennett

University of Iowa Press

As a survivor of an MFA program, there are a lot of ways I would describe writing workshops, but until reading this Workshops of Empirebook I never imagined a connection to the Cold War. Leave it to the University of Iowa Press, the publishing wing of the school that invented the Platonic form of the modern workshop, to offer this rich, counterintuitive history of the MFA.

These days, there’s nothing very revolutionary about a creative writing program. In fact, I still refer to mine as a conformative writing program, since anything that deviated from the cookie-cutter formula was dismissed.

But following World War II, Bennett argues, there developed an optimism that “the complexity of literature” would fend off the proliferation of simple sloganeering. Advances in science and technology had created weapons of terrifying power. It was time to advance the study of human nature, which happened to coincide with an increase in college attendance, thanks to the GI Bill.

“To understand creative writing in America, even today, requires tracing its origins back to the apocalyptic fears and redemptive hopes that galvanized the postwar atmosphere,” Bennett writes.

I’ve often mused about how the World Wars produced more great fiction writers than any others, and Bennett helps explain (in part) why this was: “Veterans wanted to write, and taxpayers were willing to pay for it.”

Bennett’s focus is on the Cold War era, particularly two of the most influential figures in the history of the MFA: Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner (who founded the programs at Iowa and Stanford respectively).

It’s a fascinating read and should be required reading for anyone enrolled in or considering an MFA program.