Review: Suspended in Dusk

There are 19 good reasons to read Suspended in Dusk, including contributions from new and veteran writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Karen Runge and Angela Slatter. Dusk - New CoverBut if you could only read one story in this collection, I’d direct you to Chris Limb’s “Ministry of Outrage.”

The best horror goes beyond the surface scare to uncover the darkness that lurks beneath. It’s refreshing when an author reveals something new or offers a unique perspective on something known. In “Ministry of Outrage,” Limb captures the spirit of troll-driven message boards, cyber-witch hunts and divisive political rhetoric.

Limb’s premise is startlingly simple: What if the horrific news stories we see online are fake? We’ve all wished for that to be true at some point, when confronting an atrocity so deplorable that you tell yourself it can’t be real. The ever-churning news cycle helps. Bad news disappears as quickly as it emerges. Remember the story of the stomped Pomeranian? We don’t want it to be real, and once it’s gone from the headlines, it’s easy to imagine that it never happened.

We move on to the next atrocity.

Except that sour burn in our gut remains. The venom percolates, though the snakebite is forgotten. What happens to that unresolved rage? It carries over to the next horror-show, compounding until we’re not even sure where it came from.

And when we find a deserving victim, we attack with all that self-righteous rage.

Maxwell is the narrator of Limb’s tale, and it’s his job to generate this negativity. He creates propaganda films disguised as headline news designed to enrage, and thereby control, the masses.

One such video shows protesters at the trial of an alleged child-killer. He describes the appearance of the angry mob.

“A woman’s face, contorted in anger, the light of hell burning in her eyes. The eyes. Beneath the fury there was something almost happy about them. A joy at being permitted such anger.”

That is Maxwell’s terrifying revelation. The people are already angry. It’s his job to invent a safe target at which they can direct it. Hate is not reactionary, but is rather an effect seeking a cause to justify it.

Want proof? Peruse the Facebook postings of your most partisan friends, whichever side they may support. You’ll find commentary ostensibly responding to the news of the day. But look closer. You’ll read yesterday’s anger spilling into a new vessel.

Hey, I’m no better. We’re all guilty. It’s part of being human. And that’s what makes “Ministry of Outrage” so chilling. As Maxwell’s boss explains, “Not far beneath the veneer of civilization lurk these barely human monsters.”

Spree killings. Rampage violence. Donald Trump. These are not the products of isolated events. These are not proportionate responses to reality. These are the results of aimless rage for which we seek a straw man to blame and punish.

Sartre taught us that existence precedes essence, and so it is with vindictive anger. Rage precedes reason. The time-bomb was set before its target was identified. This is as horrifying as it gets.

And this is horror fiction at its best.

I don’t mean to give short shrift to the other contributions in this anthology, such as Alan Baxter’s “Shadows of the Lonely Dead” and Anna Reith’s “Taming the Stars.” These are fabulous stories worthy of equal discussion, and you’ll find your own favorites within the pages of Suspended in Dusk.

But you may want to follow that up with some Pema Chodron.

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Cyber Monday

If you’ve got a bibliophile on your gift list, you know they can be hard to please. Hardcore readers don’t look to the best-seller lists any more than audiophiles pay attention to the Top 40 charts. Big-name publishers are fine, but impress the bookworm in your life by going independent on Cyber Monday.

It’s also, I admit, a self-serving suggestion.

In July, my debut novel, The Red Tags, was published by Comet Press, an independent publisher in New York City. If you’re shopping for someone with a taste for psychological horror or dark crime, I recommend this novel. Of course, I’m biased, but even if The Red Tags isn’t their (or your) cup of tea, I encourage you to check out these independent publishers and authors.

Comet Press

The must-have for horror aficionados this year is the anthology Necro Files: Two Decades of Extreme Horror. Featuring heavyweights such as George R.R. Martin, Joe R. Lansdale and Brian Hodge, this is a top-flight collection of disturbed visions. Originally published in 2011, it is now available for the first as an audiobook narrated by Eric A. Shelman. Or if you’re interested in something novel-length, choose from titles by authors Brett Williams, Adam Howe and Adam Millard.

Monkey Puzzle Press

Now based in Arkansas, Monkey Puzzle Press was founded in 2007 in Boulder, Colo. MPP publishes literary fiction that is dark, quirky and emotionally revealing. I highly recommend Justice, Inc., a short story collection from Dale Bridges. Other books to consider include The Boy in the Well by Nicholas B. Morris and The Whack-Job Girls by Bonnie ZoBell.

Diversion Books

Diversion publishes quality fiction and non-fiction across a spectrum of genres. Alex Dolan’s The Euthanist is one of the best books I’ve read all year, but you will find something for anyone on your gift list. Discover authors like Rachael Michael, Deborah Chester and Grant Blackwood.

Dundurn Press

Consider a trip north of the border with one of Canada’s largest independent publishers, Dundurn. My recommendation is R.J. Harlick’s A Cold White Fear, but there are also fine thrillers from Canadian authors like Janet Kellough, Brenda Chapman and Steve Burrows.

Of course, this is but a sampling of the independent presses publishing quality literature. While the big publishers recycle the same-old names, the indies can introduce you to fresh voices. They produce books that take chances because they’re more concerned with literary merit than market share.

Recommended Reads: Apocalypse Edition

 

Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia

Natasha O’Hear and Anthony O’Hear

Revelation is one of the most vivid works of literature ever etched into papyrus. It has inspired artists for nearly Picturing the Apocalypse2,000 years, stoking the fires of Michelangelo, Blake and Bosch and establishing the premise of countless bad horror films. In this impressive study, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear examine 120 works of art rooted in the closing chapter of the New Testament. The authors (a father-daughter tandem) breakdown the works into 10 different themes, including the Four Horsemen, the Seven Seals and modern popular culture.

Picturing the Apocalypse is well-written and beautifully illustrated with all of the artworks discussed. I was personally drawn to the religious history of the book, but also enjoyed the art history and theory, the literary and cultural development of Revelation and, ultimately, a fresh look at the text through the modern lens.

If not for you, this is a great gift for fans of art, history, philosophy, literature or anyone looking to upgrade their dinner-party conversation.

 

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Ulf Schmidt

Few things whet the American appetite more than atrocity and conspiracy, and readers get a hearty portion of both inSecret Science this comprehensive account of 20th-century military research. Germany’s use of chlorine and mustard gas in WWI may be the most salient example of chemical warfare, but what makes Schmidt’s account so compelling is his emphasis on Allied experimentation.

The narrative revolves around the British research center, Porton Down, and chronicles the moral dilemmas created and ethics breached in the shadow of two world wars and a global nuclear standoff.

Secret Science is both history lesson and cautionary tale, though I imagine most readers will enjoy it for the former more than the latter. History tells us that ethics usually lose out to expediency. Note the use of torture, indefinite detention, drone warfare and citizen surveillance in response to the War on Terror.

When it comes to safety, there are always extenuating circumstances (politically speaking), so I’m doubtful that the lessons of Secret Science will make inroads where they’re most needed, unfortunately. Schmidt does, however, provide us with a darkly entertaining history of the uncomfortably recent past that should chill (and in some cases vindicate) the most hardcore conspiracy theorist.

Secret Science is not light reading (I’m referencing the text itself now, rather than the content). It’s an exhaustive academic study that may not grab casual readers.

But if you’re into military history and government cover-ups, this book is worth flexing a few more of those reading muscles.

 

Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad

Sami Moubayed

The dialogue on terrorism has taken a sharper tone in the aftermath of Paris. Piled on top of the horror and despair Under the Black Flaghas flowed a polluted stream of rumor, wrath and confusion. Which makes Sami Moubayed’s Under the Black Flag all the more important.

Moubayed is a Syrian journalist and historian with roots in the country’s past — and an insider’s view of its turbulent present. He provides an account of ISIS and the rise of jihadism with a depth that no cable-news sound bite or Internet meme could capture.

If you want to understand where ISIS came from and where they (and us) are headed, read this book.

Littérature Francaise: Solidarité

Littérature Francaise: Solidarité

No words can make sense of the terror attacks in Paris. No cause, no religion, no prior offence justifies the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, and “coward” isn’t strong enough a repudiation of someone who fires an assault rifle into an unsuspecting crowd and then detonates a suicide belt to dodge the consequences.

In lieu of words, we have images. They are horrifying, but, sadly, they are not unfamiliar. We’ve watched this play out too often in the past two decades, but if you take the longview from France, it’s a struggle that dates back to November 1954 and the start of the Algerian War.

And that leads us, inevitably, to the Algerian-born writer and philosopher Albert Camus.

Sure, I’m biased, as Camus is my favorite author, but nobody has spoken so eloquently about French-Arab relations and terrorism as the 1957 Nobel Prize winner. His most challenging work, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, details the rise of terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Terrorism is born of “nihilism, intimately involved with a frustrated religious movement,” he writes. “Absolute negation is therefore not consummated by suicide. It can only be consummated by absolute destruction, of oneself and of others… the dark victory in which heaven and earth are annihilated.”

Camus’ most poignant writing on the topic appears in his essay collection, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Camus was outspoken against French colonialism and the treatment of Arabs in Algeria, but he was disgusted by the actions of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which, in its efforts for independence, killed both French and Arab civilians. “Such terrorism is a crime that can be neither excused nor allowed to develop.”

He wrote the following passage in 1958, but it certainly applies to the cowards in ISIS who ordered and committed the atrocities in Paris on Friday.

“Whatever the cause being defended, it will always be dishonored by the blind slaughter of an innocent crowd when the killer knows in advance that he will strike down women and children.”

The most instructional of Camus’ writing on the topic is “Letter to an Algerian Militant,” written for his Arab friend Aziz Kessous. In it, he chronicles the transgressions of both the French colonists and the Algerian natives, imploring each side that the way to peace is not terrorism. “The inexcusable massacring of French civilians leads to equally stupid destruction of the Arabs and their possessions.”

This cycle of violence is difficult to stop, but Camus believed it was possible. It’s haunting to think that he wrote the following words 60 years ago, in 1955, and sad that they are as relevant today as they were when published.

“I want most earnestly to believe that peace will rise over our fields, our mountains, our shores, and that then at last Arabs and French, reconciled in freedom and justice, will make an effort to forget the bloodshed that divides them today.”

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.

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.