July 24, 2017

The Hap(pening): a review of Joe R. Lansdale's "Hap and Leonard"

Hap and Leonard
by Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon Publications (2016)

I have been meandering through Lansdale's extensive works for several years now, and in that time I have come to consider him one of my all-time favorite storytellers. A big reason for that is his Hap and Leonard series of novels, which feature the hijinks of two east Texas ne'er-do-wells, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. But there are not just the novels, but also a smattering of short fiction, which has now been collected in this book from 2016 (a followup collection released in 2017). So I have to wonder if an abbreviated adventure is as satisfying as the novels.

For me, the meat of this collection came in the form of two novellas that had been previously published each on their own. The first, "Hyenas," kicks off with Hap showing up at the local bar to keep Leonard from getting hauled off by the cops after a donnybrook. Leonard's in cuffs, but relatively unscathed compared to the fellas littering the ground like so much tenderized steak. Impressed enough by the whooping, one of the guys hires Hap and Leonard to track down his little brother who has fallen in with a small gang of crooks. Witty banter and gritty brawling galore in this tale, and our heroes wind up much more invested in the younger brother's safety than they had ever anticipated.

The second novella is "Dead Aim," and it has our guys on protection duty once again, only this time it's for a woman who says he is being stalked and abused by her ex-husband. Lansdale's deftness with dialogue shines again, but the tone of the tale is a wee bit darker with things not shaping up as they should at first glance, and Hap and Leonard wind up caught in one more showdown with bloodthirsty types. This one was particularly great because it included Hap's lady love, Brett, who really feels like she turns the duo into a less than holy trinity.

The collection isn't all fisticuffs and gun fights, though. "Death by Chili" offers a bit more humor than most tales, as Hap and Leonard try to figure out how a champion chili cook died. Then there's "The Boy Who Became Invisible" and it's glimpse back and Hap's formative years.

Then there are the stories that are interludes of sorts that complement the existing novels, like "Veil's Visit" which takes place around the time Leonard burned down the crack house next door and includes Andrew Vachss with a coauthor credit, since one of his famous characters shows up at Hap's behest to bail out Leonard.

I'm not sure if it's the kind of book that works so well as an introduction to these characters, as there's a fair bit of winks and nods to what has come before that a newcomer just might not catch on to, but it's not like the stories are impenetrable to a new reader. One of the great things about the series has always been that Hap and Leonard are quickly identifiable and instantly likable. But a new reader should honestly go seek out the first novel, Savage Season, if they want to sample the waters. As for the existing fans and completists out there, this is something they will all want to get their hands on, assuming they haven't done so already.

July 21, 2017

Underwater, Under Pressure: a review of Brian Keene's "Pressure"

by Brian Keene
Thomas Dunne Books (2016)
276 pages

I haven't read all of Brian Keene's books, but of the ones I have I am invariably transported to some grizzled patch of Americana and I always walk away satisfied. So when I heard Pressure, Keene's latest novel from last year, featured a sea-faring thrill ride in the picturesque Indian Ocean, my curiosity got the better of me and I just had to see what he might try to pull off with this one.

Carrie Anderson, an ambitious young diver/oceanographer, is among the many who are investigating a strange natural phenomenon occurring off the coast of Mauritius. The ocean floor is collapsing beneath the wondrous "underwater waterfall." The tourist trap is now just that, sinking into the sea, and a full-scale evacuation is imminent if they can't figure out what's going on and how to stop it.

Kind of like a Lincoln & Child novel, Pressure embraces the cryptozoological discoveries without bogging itself down in the scientific minutia. A crisp pace keeps everything moving along, and Keene still manages to squeeze in some wonderful fleshing out of his characters, such as Carrie's obsessiveness to be the best. And the first. Plus there is the salty sea dog assisting her, Abhi, whose brokenhearted isolation drives him further out to sea every year. As for the creature they discover beneath the unusually icy depths, it is the scene stealer every time and one of Keene's more memorable monstrosities. And he's had a few.

Where things take a turn though is when the initial encounter with the monster is over and a new threat emerges, that in the form of a biotech company with an intense desire to gain exclusive knowledge and advancements from the newly discovered creature. The pressure, as it were, comes when Carrie finds herself caught in the middle of a creature seemingly bent on the destruction of all life and a corporation that seems bent on domination of all life.

Outside of a personal annoyance with how the third act transpired, which I found out of tune with nearly everything preceding it, Pressure was an exciting bit of monster mayhem. If there is ever a followup to be written to this novel, I'll certainly check it out, along with just about anything else Keene writes in the meantime.

July 17, 2017

Bonding Over Death: a review of Donald E. Westlake's "Forever and a Death"

Forever and a Death
by Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (2017)

Donald E. Westlake is responsible for penning a couple of my absolute favorite novels, so when I saw Hard Case Crime was set to publish one of his as-yet-unseen novels, which happened to be inspired by a treatment he once did for the James Bond franchise, I just had to check it out.

Now, if you're expecting this novel to be a James Bond type of story, with hi-tech gadgets and femme fatales and a lead character who kicks all kinds of ass without mussing his hair, then you can put those expectations to bed right now. This isn't that kind of novel. This is pure Westlake. That said, you can pretty easily pick up the echoes of a Bond story that Westlake refashioned into his own brand of story.

Right from the get-go, Forever and a Death presents itself as a villain's tale. Oh sure, we have our plucky hero in the form of a conscientious engineer who happens to throw a pretty good punch, but the lion's share of the story, and where it shines, is with the inner machinations of the lead villain and his henchmen. Industrialist Richard Curtis has a score to settle with Hong Kong where he was kicked out after it was handed back China in the 90s, and his engineer's prized invention of a soliton wave, which transforms seaside landfill and everything built on top of it into a giant mud puddle, is just how Curtis intends to do it.

Curtis' best laid plans are undermined at every turn, most of all it seems by his own hubris. He considers himself superior to everyone around him both in stature and in intellect, which quickly bites him in the ass when an environmentalist watchdog attempts to stop his soliton wave experiment off the coast of Australia. A young activist named ??? dives into the water and is swept up by the powerful artificial current that levels a small island. And when her body is recovered and found to have survived, albeit barely, Curtis realizes his plans could go up in smoke if she lives. Enter George Manville.

Manville, his engineer, feels responsible for the woman's condition, and when propositioned by Curtis to aide him in disposing of her, managing a daring escape back to Australia. From there, it is a cat-and-mouse chase of sorts between Curtis and Manville. Manville needs to alert the authorities to Curtis' ill deeds while evading capture and/or extermination, while Curtis needs to silence Manville by any means necessary long enough for him to see his ultimate plan come to fruition.

On the one hand, Westlake's attention to detail is something to behold. Nearly every supporting character is fleshed out to the fullest. We see why Curtis has earned a sworn enemy by a famed environmentalist. We see the desperation to regain lost status by one of Curtis' former employers turned freelance goon. But with all of these characters given the spotlight, the pacing of the novel takes a hit. A couple sections of the book even become downright plodding as "will he or won't he" questions of conscience are hung over one character's or another's head. The third act is breakneck, however, and offers an ending that one may find ill fitting for something Bond inspired, but it is perfectly suited to Westlake's style.

All things considered, it's a good read that stopped short of being great, which may be why Westlake never saw it published before his death. A thoughtfully imagined plot with some forgettable heroes and one damned good villain. It may not be the makings of a franchise like James Bond, but it's a satisfying summer read for those looking for a taut thriller.

July 15, 2017

Little Heaven, Lotta Horror: a review of Nick Cutter's "Little Heaven"

Little Heaven
by Nick Cutter
Simon & Schuster Canada (2017)
496 pages

A story about a cult based in the middle of the woods is a frightening enough premise, if you ask me, but Nick Cutter decided that wasn’t near enough and threw in a trio of assassins and a supernatural juggernaut for good measure in Little Heaven, his third outing through Simon & Schuster.

The novel starts with the emergence (actually, re-emergence we come to learn) of an evil spirit that takes the shape of a hideous amalgamation of wildlife, which then seeks out and abducts a little girl from her home. The imagery in this opening scene is the kind of stomach-queezing fare that Cutter made himself known for in his two previous novels, The Troop and The Deep. The girl is to be used as bait to lure three killers, one of whom the girl's father, with whom the entity has unfinished business. But before we see our three killers, Micah (the father), Ebenezer, and Minerva, head out on their return trek, we witness their pivotal meeting and their first foray into the wilds of the southwest where they encounter the doomed cult and the malevolent spirits that surround them.

The alliance between the three killers grows through what starts off as a bullet-ridden threeway dance of sorts, as each has initially been set against the other, but in their lack of success in offing each other, they settle on a truce of sorts and are eventually enlisted by a concerned woman desperate to find and save her young nephew who has been whisked away to the woods by a cult. Beyond that, they come to rely on one another as more and more odds are set against them.

Along the way, some supporting characters manage to add some much-needed flavor to what might otherwise be a one-note horror story. The ramshackle compound is populated by a cult driven by fear and frayed nerves. Amos Flesher, the leader, quickly reveals himself to the outsiders as a conniving and unstable figurehead buffeted and precariously aligned with two other hired killers who increasingly see the compound as a place to go into business for themselves. Then there's the young boy the gang has been tasked with finding, one of the only people in the camp seemingly unaffected by the influence of the cult leader inside the compounds walls or the entity lurking outside its walls. It didn't take long actually for him to become the most engaging and sympathetic character of the bunch and an easy one to root for getting out of there alive, though the book offers zero assurances such a feat is possible. And after all that brouhaha is settled, the horrors are begun anew many years later with the reckoning they all knew would come sooner or later in those woods.

At the end of the day, Little Heaven feels like a bit of a mish-mash, kind of like the creatures lurking within its pages. Cutter plays with quite a few hallmarks of the horror genre, particularly the earlier works of Stephen King, but nothing really stands out as its own and feels more like an echo of what's come before. Still, it's done with enough flair and fierceness to make it an enjoyable read and downright hair-raising at moments. I'm not sure what Cutter has up his sleave for the next horror novel, but I look forward to it and hope he can carve out more of his own style amid what this decade has shown to be a great one for horror fiction.

June 2, 2017

a guest post by Ty Arthur, author of "Light Dawning"

Following his debut sci-fi novella “Empty” from 2016, Ty Arthur returns with new full-length horror novel “Light Dawning.” Pivoting away from the emptiness of space, the book dives headlong into the waters of fantasy, but with a seriously grimdark twist. This next foray into the bleaker corners of human existence is officially slated for release on Friday, May 26th, 2017. Kindle pre-orders are now online at https://www.amazon.com/Light-Dawning-Ty-Arthur-ebook/dp/B0722FJ3ZB/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 

a guest post by Ty Arthur

After short stories set on modern day Earth and a far future space novella, for Light Dawning I wanted to shift focus yet again to a different style. Even though its absolutely a horror story, this time around I wanted to explore a fantasy world.

The fantasy genre doesn't need another epic tale where a rag tag group of unexpected heroes rises to the occasion and defeats the dark lord after discovering the magical MacGuffin. There's already enough of those. Likewise, there's already enough epics with dwarves mining for gold in their mountain homes and graceful, pointy eared elves living in tree cities. It was clear when I started writing Light Dawning that high fantasy wouldn't be a viable option for the kind of story being told.

Fantasy as a genre is a form of wish fulfillment – its right there in the name. The genre offers a glimpse of the sort of world people wish existed rather than the one that actually does. It provides the escapism of noble men and women standing fast against the tide of evil no matter the odds, of the powerful using their resources in the name of good, and of people being celebrated for breaking the rules if it they do it for the right reasons.

Who knows, maybe one day grimdark will become the equivalent of the zombie novel, with review sites having to list a disclaimer that “no, yours isn't different from all the others, please don't submit,” but for now, its a genre full of possibilities still to be explored. Light Dawning and the tale of Cestia's final hours is just the beginning of my exploration of this style, as there's no shortage of grim material to mine from the real world to transplant into a fantasy setting.

“Grimdark” then is the injection of unpleasant reality into that fantasy. Going even further than low fantasy, where the focus is primarily on humans and the things they do, grimdark reminds the audience that all is not well in the world, and that the addition of elements like magic and gods wouldn't actually make the world any better.

Fantasy is a genre ripe with possibilities for horror that aren't utilized nearly often enough. When I think of what people in the real world would do if supernatural abilities suddenly became available, the first scenarios that come to mind most definitely aren't “feed the hungry” or “provide housing for the poor” or “set the wrongfully convicted free.” There's no question that magic – were it to exist on Earth – would be used for war and enforcing religious dominance and keeping the elite wealthy few at the top of the proverbial totem pole.

With Light Dawning I've gone a step further even, with the supernatural abilities wielded by a handful of characters in this book all rooted in a cosmic horror source. Not only are they not being used for altruistic reasons, they come with the danger of insanity and extremely unexpected consequences. Magic is more a curse than a gift here, and those who choose to wield it will frequently wish that they hadn't.

Reversing all the standard fantasy tropes was a strong impetus while writing this book, and that included the priests and pantheons so typical of the style. The clergy in this book's universe are quite incorrect in assuming the gods they worship actually care about them, or that these infinite beings who entirely embody some cosmic principle would even have comprehensible desires.

After all, what does the sun really want? Who can say that they truly understand the goals of the darkness in the night sky, even if it even has goals at all? Any human desires attributed to these beings are more a reflection of the character bestowing them than on the actual “god” itself. Does a star have an opinion on how the planets orbiting closest to it are burned to a crisp while those farther away might be in just the right spot for life to flourish?

With no altruistic priests or heroes to rescue them from an invading army, the focus on Light Dawning shifts from whether the characters will save the world, but to whether its even worth saving and how people will deal with harsh reality. How do the people of Cestia respond when their gods utterly fail to save them from invasion and do nothing to ease their suffering in the intervening years? At what point does survival in a brutal occupation become less trouble than its worth? When death is all around, what will these characters make of their final days and how important are their decisions?

Ty Arthur gets to meld his passions with his work while freelancing for the likes of Metalunderground.com and GameSkinny. His debut sci-fi / horror novella “Empty” was released in early 2016, with many more dark tales still to come. Arthur writes to exorcise his demons and lives in the cold, dark north with his amazing wife Megan and infant son Gannicus Picard.

Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/Ty-Arthur/e/B0727MRVF8
Official website: https://tyarthur.wordpress.com/
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/12585427.Ty_Arthur
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ty.g.arthur

April 21, 2017

a review of Thomas Mullen's "Darktown"

There’s no such thing as the good ol’ days and reading Thomas Mullen’s Darktown is a fair reminder of that.  In this historical crime novel, America is still patting itself on the back for a job well done in World War 2, but late-40s Atlanta offers a glimpse of home-grown intolerance and corruption that must be confronted.

Following the war, Atlanta has hired its first black police officers to serve the community known as Darktown. The eight new officers aren’t exactly held in high regard by their bosses either, as not only are they relegated to one neighborhood, but are given no firearms, can make no arrests, and cannot even enter the police department itself, instead conducting their business from a gym basement.

The novel alternates between the viewpoints of two officers, Lucius Boggs and Denny Rakestraw. Boggs, as they and their partners traverse the streets of Darktown. Boggs on the one hand is a bit disillusioned to how well he’s serving his community, while Rakestraw’s naivety is challenged at the side of a grizzled, racist cop who lords over the town as if he owned it. When a black woman is murdered and the last man she was seen with is a retired white cop, things come to a head.

Through the course of the novel, Mullen really paints a picture of how precarious a tightrope it was for the black officers in enforcing the law as best they could with what little they had in resources and support. Hell, there’s a point where just a simple drive out of the city comes with the prospect of an untimely end. Not to mention the open hostility and interference on the part of especially resentful and racist white officers in the department. Plus, the characters feel very genuine and flawed, where a lesser writer might leave them gimmicky and flat.

I enjoy crime fiction, though I don’t normally gravitate towards the police procedural, but this was such an engrossing book aided by a rich historical backdrop and some tight character development, that it felt in no way like a by-the-numbers murder mystery. Atlanta leaps off the page and may be the most interesting character of them all in this novel. And if Mullen has more stories in him revolving around the Atlanta region, I’ll be sure to check them out.

March 24, 2017

A guest post by James Walley, author of "The Fathom Flies Again"

THE FATHOM FLIES AGAIN by James Walley - It's time to wake up and smell the carnage. Just as every night gives way to dawn, all dreams yield to the break of day. For Marty, that's kind of a problem. When you've fought killer clowns, sailed the seven skies, and generally laid waste to your own dreamspace, real life can be kind of a drag. At least, until your nightmares crawl through the cracks and shadows, and take a liking to your town. When the jesters come a knocking, it's time to man up. When the unmentionables under your bed come a biting, it's time to grab your trusty, pint-sized pirate compadre and lead a charge against the night terrors. What does this mean for Marty? It means the crew of The Flying Fathom are back, surfing on rainbows, swashing their buckles, and saving the world, one sleepy little town at a time. Book one of this series, The Forty First Wink, brought you a glimpse of utter, rum-swilling madness. Now The Fathom Flies Again, pushing you over the edge and chuckling at your plummeting screams, before scuttling off to find something shiny to steal. Remember, if you hear something under your bed, don't move. Don't make a sound. Draw your cutlass and think of something devilishly witty to shout, because things, my friend, are about to get all too real.

a guest post by James Walley

When I sat down to write The Forty First Wink, there were no plans for it to be part one of a trilogy. There were no plans for anything really, I just wanted to see if I could stay the course and write a novel. That lasted about four chapters, at which point I realised that there was a lot of mileage in the unfolding story I was tentatively tapping out on my newbie-author keyboard.
Fast forward a year or so. Wink is out, and happily receiving some lovely words of praise. And so it was time to stop walking, get the jetpack out and take it for a test drive.
There were so many things that drove Wink as I was writing it. My love of absurd comedy, the unlikely, rag tag group of heroes, old school horror movies and an overriding sense of fun which I wanted to be the driving force. The story does take place in a dreamscape after all, where everything is amplified, distorted and exaggerated. That was all well and good for the whimsy side, but I felt I was selling my antagonists short a little. Only a little, because come on – Demonic clowns. Put one in a tutu and make it dance a jig and it’d still be terrifying, and a little adorable.
Being a big fan of trilogies, and particularly the dark, harrowing second acts, I saw The Fathom Flies Again as an opportunity to give my Empire its time to Strike Back. I wanted to make it bigger, bleaker, and somehow more grounded in reality, and the latter is precisely where I started with this sequel. It’s all fun and games when you’re gallivanting around your own dream, even if you do have Hell’s harlequins chasing you most of the time. With Fathom, the waking world in all its grey, mundane nine-to-fivery that plays host to hordes of everyone’s worst nightmares.
I’ve always been a fan of sleepy little towns, they always seem to be the places that are set upon in horror fiction. Something about an unreal terror descending to wreak slicey mayhem on a hamlet of unsuspecting victims makes people shudder and grin in equal measure, it seems. I’ve seen and read about that very scenario so many times, and it is so ripe with possibility, that I couldn’t help but unleash my red nosed baddies on the general public, along with a few new nasties thrown in for good measure – Hey, it’s a horror homage, and who says demons can’t bring their friends on a night out?
That’s the creepy element sorted, what now? Oh yes. BIGGER.
Whilst Wink wasn’t at any stage reluctant to throw a stick of dynamite into a store selling more sticks of dynamite, I wanted Fathom to blow the roof off what had come before it. Imagine trading in your car for a monster truck, and then fixing a P.A system to the roof that perpetually thundered out The William Tell Overture, then took it for a spin through a shopping mall. Messy? Loud? Well yes, a bit, but damn that sounds like a lot of fun. I wanted the sort of triumphant fanfare for my heroes that I’d heard from the likes of Captain Chaos in The Cannonball Run, or even Sloth as he slid down the mainsail in The Goonies. Stuff that makes you want to throw a fist and everything it’s attached to into the air in appreciation of the sheer reckless bedlam you wish you could perpetrate too.
While The Forty First Wink was undoubtedly a labour of love, The Fathom Flies Again wasn’t a labour at all. It was the world and its contents that I had written about in book one, but let off the leash, and allowed to be as big, bad and bombastic as they could possibly be. Ultimately I think that’s why I had so much fun writing The Fathom Flies Again. It was as though I had laid the foundation, and now I could go ahead and build a whopping great funhouse on top of it, clowns and all.

Of course, there are worse things than clowns out there…

Hailing from the mystical isle of Great Britain, James Walley is an author who prefers his reality banana shaped.

His debut novel, The Forty First Wink, released through Ragnarok Publications in 2014 scuttles gleefully into this bracket, with a blend of humour, fantasy and the unusual.

A clutch of follow up work, both short and long (including books two and three in the Wink trilogy) are in the offing, and have a similar demented flavour.

When not writing, James is partial to a spot of singing, the odd horror movie or ten, and is a circus trained juggler.

February 1, 2017


Things are going to be pretty quiet on the blog for awhile, but hopefully there will be more reviews, interviews, and such later in the year. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, enjoy 2017 by reading a good book Or try writing something yourself if you feel compelled. Oh, maybe even, if opportunity should present itself ... punch a nazi in the face.

2017, y'all.