Friday, April 6, 2012

Review: Jasper Kent's Twelve

An interesting work, though a problematic one for me. Jasper Kent weaves a tale of the Russian military, embroiled in battle against Napoleon's Grande Armée, the arrogant narcissist at the center of the conflict, and the Oprichniki, a gang of mysterious mercenaries. There's a lot to like about this book, but there's also a lot that doesn't work very well. Let's start with the negatives, because I'd like to end the review with some well-deserved praise.

The above mentioned arrogant narcissist is Aleksei Sergeivich Danilov, an officer in the Russian army who is attached to an elite espionage and sabotage unit, consisting of himself and three other officers. A spy, in other words. Aleksei narrates the story, and his viewpoint and opinions inform our own view of the work's universe. He is also the biggest stumbling block to my recommending this work wholeheartedly, being almost aggressively unlikable. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, an enormous tool. He's not exactly a bad man, but he most certainly is not a good one; and his constant philosophizing and relentless self-obsession become, by the end of the book's 450-odd pages, very wearying.

This leads us to the book's second critical problem: the length. I am not at all opposed to very long novels, when the work has enough substance and energy to sustain itself over the length. Twelve does not. I firmly believe that Kent could have eliminated a great deal of Aleksei's endless internal monologue without damaging the integrity of the book at all. With, perhaps, fifty pages of introspection trimmed, the book would have been a much leaner, tighter and more well-defined work.

That being said, there's a lot I liked about this novel as well. Kent captures the atmosphere, language and attitudes of early 19th century Russia wonderfully. The descriptions of landscapes, cityscapes, peasantry and soldiers are all marvelous.

My favorite thing about the book was the strange mercenary company, the Oprichniki. We the readers immediately recognize their true nature, although the book's protagonists do not: they are vampires. However, these are a far cry from Anne Rice's glamorous tortured souls; and have even less in common with the whitewashed do-gooders of so much of today's vampire fiction. The Oprichniki are brutal, savage and bestial. They possess none of humanity's finer qualities, having no sense whatsoever of empathy, camaraderie or love. They are in fact almost devoid of personality (save for Iuda, their charismatic leader), having few definable traits aside from hunger, sadism and a dim, black sense of humor. The latter is perhaps best demonstrated in our initial meeting with the Oprichniki, in which they mockingly name themselves after the twelve disciples of Christ, with their "father" taking the name of Zmyeevich, the "son of the serpent." The book explores the nature of these monsters quite deeply, and this is the most satisfying aspect.

In closing, Twelve is a novel well worth reading, with a few caveats. I'd recommend it to dark fantasy and horror fans, or even to adventurous readers of military historical fiction, but probably not to lovers of the modern, de-fanged vampire.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: Caitlin R. Kiernan's Two Worlds and In Between

Two Worlds and In Between is an absolutely massive collection, as befits the author. Kiernan is, in my opinion, one of the premier talents of modern dark fiction, and a career overview such as this is long overdue. Unfortunately, many of her previous collections are rather hard to find, so this definitely fills a need in the market.

The book is divided into two sections: early work (1993-1999) and later (2000-2004). It may go without saying that the second half of the book is the superior, but Kiernan's early material really only suffers in comparison to her own later work. I'd definitely recommend reading all the pieces in order, as I think it gives a really good idea of how Kiernan has grown as a talent.

Part 1, although it's definitely the work of an author still finding her voice, features some very interesting work. "Rats Live On No Evil Star" (don't you love that title?) and "Postcards From the King of Tides", in particular, are outstanding. Some of the other early tales don't hold up as well. "Emptiness Spoke Eloquent" feels to me (as Kiernan herself mentions in her afterword) like the work of an author who wants to write something more powerful than her ability can currently convey. Many of the other stories in Part 1 suffer from the same difficulties. Again, I'm definitely not saying these are bad stories, they just feel a bit undercooked. [Side note: "Tears Seven Times Salt", which I read in 1998 or so, was my first exposure to Kiernan's fiction. While I was very impressed at the time, and felt that I was witnessing the coming of a major talent, the story doesn't seem as transfixing fourteen years later.]

And now for Part 2, where the real pleasure of this collection resides. This half of the book could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with classics like Klein's Dark Gods or Ligotti's Songs of a Dead Dreamer. The stories contained herein are uniformly dark, rich and powerful works, in which Kiernan displays a masterful command of style and language. I could wax rhapsodic about any number of these selections (and frequently do, given half a chance), but in the interest of brevity, I'll confine my most glowing praise to those I feel are the best. "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6" is, along with most of the fiction in Part 2, a modern Lovecraftian tale written with a careful eye for nuance and atmosphere. The Dry Salvages is a short science fiction novel which builds on the themes of the earlier "Riding the White Bull" to deliver a chilling tale of first contact. I was thrilled to be able to finally read this book, as I'd never been able to find a copy when it was published earlier. I was not disappointed at all.

The final story in this collection, "Houses Under the Sea" is also its crowning jewel. It is without a doubt one of the finest works of dark fiction I've ever had the pleasure to experience. The story touches on the themes of lost love, damaged psyches and cosmic horror wrapped in the post-mortem account of a suicidal cult. You owe it to yourself to read this one.

I really cannot recommend this collection highly enough. The stories themselves are nearly all fantastic, and the chance to witness Kiernan's growth as an artist and prose stylist is fascinating. If you are at all a fan of modern horror or dark fantasy and haven't been acquainted with Kiernan's work already, you simply must read this book.

Friday, March 23, 2012

An update, and a new review: Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year, Volume 3

No, surprisingly enough, I haven't forgotten about this blog. I'd love to say that I've been busy doing important things at work, but the sad truth is that my time has been far too occupied with Skyrim lately. At any rate, I've written a new review for today! Enjoy!

Datlow has returned with her annual collection, and as usual, those who share similar tastes will be pleased. I personally don't feel this volume was as strong as the two previous, but there are several very strong tales here that literary horror fans shouldn't miss. There's quite a bit of overlap with Stephen Jones's Mammoth book this year, which is unfortunate. I've omitted duplicate reviews. I'll do a brief rundown of each story herein:

"At the Riding School" by Cody Goodfellow: I felt this was a weak beginning to the collection, with a rather predictable plot involving an exclusive school for girls. However, the characterization was strong.

"Mr. Pigsny" by Reggie Oliver: Much more to my taste than the previous, "Mr. Pigsny" is a classical weird tale after the style of M.R. James or Robert Aickman, but with gangsters (!). This should come as no surprise to readers of Oliver's posthumous collaboration with James, "The Game of Bear." Recommended.

 "--30--" by Laird Barron: The absolute high point of the collection. Barron's voice has only grown stronger as time passes, and this story is possibly his most accomplished work to date. A tale of a broken relationship, isolation, and possible supernatural occurrences in the high desert. This is a marvel, and every dark fiction reader owes it to themselves to witness it firsthand.

 "Was She Wicked? Was She Good?" by M. Rickert: An unusual and disturbing story about the stress of parenting, childhood cruelty (or possibly something deeper, and darker) and the Fair Folk. Fantastically evocative prose, with one of the best opening lines I've read in years.

"The Fear" by Richard Harland: A group of film fans investigates a famed director-turned-hermit's lost work from the 60s. Goes off the rails a bit at the end, but the subject matter of lost, strange cinema is fascinating.

"Till the Morning Comes" by Stephen Graham Jones: This rather nostalgic and sentimental tale manages to be both bleak and life-affirming. It sounds contradictory, but somehow, it works.

"Shomer" by Glen Hirshberg: I've always found Hirshberg to be underwhelming, and this story is no exception. However, it did introduce me to the Jewish custom of Shomer, which I found to be very interesting, so it wasn't a total loss.

 "The Obscure Bird" by Nicholas Royle: Royle delivers another cryptic tale of obsession and familial discord, this time focusing on owls. Yes, owls. The final passage is extraordinarily tense and frightening.

"Transfiguration" by Richard Christian Matheson: This is and unusual work for Matheson, in that it's more than two pages long. It's the sad tale of a psychopathic truck driver with a keen religious obsession, and the landscape he moves within. The northern Alaska setting is one not often explored in horror, and the landscape conveys a sense of isolation and bleak despair. A powerful work.

"The Days of Flaming Motorcycles" by Catherynne Valente: Another zombie story (Can this fad end now? Please?), although this one is saved by Valente's lovely prose and the unusual portrayal of the "zombies."

"The Folding Man" by Joe R. Lansdale: Lansdale always delivers, and this story of extremely creepy and unsettling nuns, and the pseudo-mechanical horror they unleash on a carload of pranksters, is a high point of this book. There is some truly gruesome and disturbing imagery found within this work.

"Just Another Desert Night With Blood" by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr: Prose poem about a maniac, or some such. Not to my taste at all.

"Black and White Sky" by Tanith Lee: A mysterious story about a plague of magpies that blankets Britain, and how people eventually come to live with it. Lee's work is always a joy to read, and while this is not my favorite of her stories, it is a pleasure.

"At Night, When the Demons Come" by Ray Cluley: Another tale of a demonic apocalypse, although this one is distinguished from "Lesser Demons" by its unrelentingly grim tone and horrifyingly nihilistic conclusion. It's less about the external horrors that cause the end of civilization than it is about the profound darkness dwelling in the depths of every human heart.

"The Revel" by John Langan: It's rare for the same author to get two stories in the same Best-Of, but Langan was certainly deserving. As good as "City of the Dog" is, "The Revel" is better. While dealing with similar premises, the two stories differ in their approach. "The Revel" is nearly meta-fiction, with its cinematic language (even going so far as to describe camera angles) and direct implication of the reader as a willing accomplice in horror. Fantastic work here. If he keeps up with work of this quality, I really feel that Langan may be mention in the same breath as giants like King and Barker someday.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

First Review! The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 22, edited by Stephen Jones

As always, Jones's annual anthology is an excellent overview of what was happening in horror this year. This year's crop seemed a little slim when compared to some of the past volumes, but what it loses in quantity it certainly makes up in quality.

A few words about Jones and his yearly summation to begin: it is, simply put, exhaustive. And exhausting. I have no idea how Jones manages to keep up with the myriad of small press releases, but I must give him credit for possessing a fortitude to which mere mortals such as myself couldn't hope to aspire. There's a lot of information to dig through here, and if you're the type of obsessive collector that simply must have everything, it's invaluable. I suspect most of the rest of us will end up skimming large portions. Now on to the meat of the book, and why we're all here. I'll be saying a few words about each story and then offering an overall review at the end, so feel free to skip over any authors who don't interest you.

Scott Edelman- "What Will Come After". I can only speak for myself here, but I'm growing tired of zombie fiction, and zombie media in general. This, however, is a corpse of an altogether different lividity. It's a powerful tale presented in the form of a letter, from a man to his wife (An attempt at reviving epistolaries!? Yes, kids, and it works!), envisioning what may happen after his death and eventual resurrection. It's marvelous stuff, and I feel that Edelman is certainly an adept at this whole living dead thing.

Michael Marshall Smith- "Substitutions". Smith's tale is as impressive as his prior output would indicate. "Substitutions" is a tale of how a seemingly minor incident- in this case, a food delivery mix-up- can rapidly spiral into shattering consequences. One of my favorites of this collection, highly recommended.

Mark Valentine- "A Revelation of Cormorants". A slight story that I was not at all impressed by, aside from the wonderfully evocative title. A pretentious literary scholar finds himself trapped by the rising tide on a sheer cliff, and has various thoughts about his impending demise. Also, there are some cormorants. Go figure. This story felt quite inconsequential.

Garry Kilworth- "Out Back". A clever and classicist story about a writer who rents a cottage in the boondocks and is soon confronted with some rather disturbing events. This one worked like gangbusters for me. There's nothing groundbreaking or overly challenging about it, really, just pure old-fashioned dread of the unknown. Plus, it's fun to try and guess who Kilworth may have intended to be represented by those initials.

Albert E. Cowdrey- "Fort Clay, Lousiana: A Tragical History". In Cowdrey's longer tale, a young photographer and an historian venture into the titular abandoned military base to document the past. Along the way, the historian relates an account of the fort's mysterious past, which quickly becomes all too relevant to the present. To say any more would be spoiling it. Excellent.

Brian Hodge- "Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls". This one has received quite a few accolades, but I must admit I don't entirely agree. Although I usually enjoy Hodge's work, this one struck me as a bit lightweight. Focusing on the friendship between an isolated boy and the girl next door, the two bond and soon find a novel solution to their separate- and shared- problems. Not a bad story by any means, but not quite up to Hodge's normally very high standard.

Mark Morris- "Fallen Boys". I've been a fan of Morris since reading The Immaculate in 1996 or thereabouts, and this tale does not disappoint. It follows a school field trip to an abandoned mine, and some of the lore of said mine. The prose has a very dreamlike and mysterious quality which should be familiar to those versed in Morris's work.

Simon Kurt Unsworth- "The Lemon in the Pool". This is only the second piece of fiction I've read by Unsworth (the first being the justifiably praised "The Church on the Island") and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. A British lady retires to sunny Spain and soon finds that her swimming pool has some rather peculiar qualities. This was an extraordinarily creepy work, perhaps due to its seemingly prosaic setting and background. It wouldn't be out of place in a Lovecraftian anthology, I think.

Thana Niveau- "The Pier". I'm sad to say that I had utterly forgotten what this story was even about until I re-read the first couple pages to prepare for writing this review. A man and his wife come upon some obscure and disturbing plaques placed on a pier in Somerset (apparently based on a real location). Underwhelming and overall forgettable, despite the high quality of Niveau's prose. I'll be looking for future work from this author, but this piece was nothing to write home about.

Robert Sherman- "Featherweight". A tale of the afterlife following a car crash. It wasn't great, but the "angels" featured within the tale were extremely disturbing. Worth reading for the imagery surrounding said entities, if nothing else.

Joel Lane- "Black Country". A dark crime story following a rather unsympathetic police detective who investigates incidents of juvenile delinquency in his hometown. I felt it could have used a little more fleshing out, as the detective upon whose character the story hinges feels very loosely sketched. Not bad, however.

Angela Slatter- "Lavender and Lychgates". A dark fantasy that felt more than a little out of place. While an enjoyable read, I couldn't escape the feeling that it was a little too similar to authors like Neil Gaiman or Kelly Link.

Joe R. Lansdale- "Christmas With the Dead". If you know Lansdale, you know what to expect: a balls-out, no holds barred feast of action and grotesquerie. The second zombie tale in this volume, Lansdale mines those sad shamblers for all the chills (and pathos, oddly enough) they're worth. A great read.

Kirstyn McDermott- "We All Fall Down". A lesbian couple suffer an auto accident and find themselves in a very sinister country house. This kind of plot has been done before, but the two women were so wonderfully and sympathetically characterized that I couldn't help but feel shaken by their plight. Tragic and moving.

Christopher Fowler- "Oh, I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside". An opaque tale of juvenile delinquency in a small English seaside town. The conclusion (the entire story, to be quite honest) is rather baffling, but Fowler's prose is a joy to read.

Mark Samuels- "Losenef Express". An author experiences a bizarre altercation outside a pub in the town of Strasgol, and an even stranger train ride follows. I don't feel this story was as strong as some of Samuels's earlier stories (especially "Glyphotech"), but it was well-written and had some genuine creep.

Norman Partridge- "Lesser Demons". A post-apocalyptic tale told from the perspective of a small town American sherriff. I've heard a lot of praise for Partridge, and if this story is in any way indicative of the quality of his work, I'll be hunting down everything I can. Marvelous stuff.

Steve Rasnic Tem- "Telling". Tem's story of of a haunting came to such an abrupt conclusion that at first I thought my Kindle book was badly formatted. If you enjoy Tem's brand of psychological exploration, you'll undoubtedly find this piece interesting, but it left me cold.

Caitlin R. Kiernan- "As Red as Red". The always impressive Kiernan makes her annual contribution with this tale of vampirism. Sort of. As usual, her pyrotechnic command of language and style is transfixing.

Ramsey Campbell- "With the Angels". Campbell is a master in fine form with this tale. His crystalline and hallucinatory prose finds deep dread in the story of a couple of old ladies returning to their childhood home, with grandchildren in tow.

Richard L. Tierney- "Autumn Chill". A prose poem that I found unbearably twee and cute. I'll readily admit that I'm not entirely equipped to criticize poetry, but I found this piece dull and precious. Not recommended.

John Langan- "City of the Dog". Lovecraft's ghouls find a new lease on life, in Albany of all places. This was a great story, quite possibly the best of the book.

Karina Sumner-Smith - "When the Zombies Win". The third zombie tale in this book (fourth if you count "Featherweight"), Sumner-Smith tells us what happens after the zombie apocalypse. It's pretty much as tragic and altogether pointless as you'd expect.

All in all, this was a worthwhile anthology. Although there were a few stories I did not care for, there almost are in an annual collection of this size. Quite worth the read. Hell, "City of the Dog" alone is worth the asking price, in my opinion.

Final Score: 7/10

Who I am and what this is

Hey there, and thanks for visiting.

What is this? Frankly, I've never felt much interest in doing a blog. So why now? In my trawls around the web, I've found a dearth of review/criticism sites dedicated to horror fiction. There are more than you can shake a stick at for movies, and even more than a few for video games, but the pickings for litcrit are slim indeed. The few I have found are either abandoned for years and irrelevant, or so fanboyish they'd make Comic Book Guy blush. I think there's a place for intelligent review and discussion of literary horror, so I decided to do it myself.

Who am I? I'm Steven, and I'm a lifelong horror fanatic. My interest in horror films (and film in general, sad to say) has waned tremendously in recent years, but my love for horror fiction has remained strong and in fact has only grown. I want to help people avoid the many copycats and stealth "paranormal romances" that plague our genre; to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Needless to say, my opinions are my own, and taste is highly subjective. You may disagree with me, and you're certainly welcome to do so. Leave comments if you want to debate! I want to see a forum for mature and thoughtful discussions (this means more than just, "Your opinion sucks and you suck for having it!")

A little more about me: I work in inventory control for a veterinary supply company, which is an unspeakably boring position than leaves me no small amount of time for exercising the old headmeat. My favorite authors are H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti and Caitlin R. Kiernan.

Please note that any images I use are for the purposes of review only, and I believe that such images fall under fair use in copyright law. I obtain no monetary benefit whatsoever from their use. If you are the copyright holder of any images contained herein and object to their use in this manner, please contact me and they will be promptly removed.