Two Fake Books from McSweeney's
One of my old Army buddies, Eric Hoffman, went on to become a comedian, making a name for himself in the Chicago improv circuit and landing some good roles in TV and film (most notably, he parodied the John Travolta character from Pulp Fiction in My Big Fat Independent Movie). He even wrote for Bob & Dave's "Mr. Show" for awhile. Well, now he's an author, or co-author with Gary Rudoren, anyway, with the release of a great humor book: Comedy by the Numbers
I didn't intend to review the book here, but it's such a singularly funny read that I just have to. Sure, I'm biased. But don't let that stop you from buying it.
Comedy by the Numbers is a mock "how to be popular" book -- a technical guide to being the class clown or life of the party -- with a catalog of 169 tried-and-true comedy "secrets" that are applicable to any stand-up routine, comedic screenplay, or water cooler conversation. The book parodies itself with mock authority, and as it enumerates all the clichés we've all seen before (#1 Animals Doing Things Humans Do, #16 Clowns, #36 Dwarves, Midgets and the Like), it catches you off-guard once in awhile by throwing in an absurd example of a tip here, or an excessive and over-the-top application of the secret there (like the list of "Clown Names Still Available for General Use" that includes names like "Cancerella, Spoogie, Stone Phillips and Blazey the Arsonist Clown"). Ever wanted to know how to properly shop for ventriloquist dummies? (Floppy legs are best). Which facial expressions are the best reactions to pain? (Sometimes it's the "anger face," sometimes it's the "Indian shot arrow in the windpipe" face). What the best choices are for mimes who want to pretend to be trapped inside an object? (The back end of a horse costume always gets a laugh).
As you read along, you'll find yourself caught up in all the stock examples from film comedies you've seen, and you'll start to realize that Comedy by the Numbers still manages to be rather educational despite itself, by successfully surveying the genre and exposing all its formulas, strengths, and weaknesses. But beyond its content, the writing succeeds because the authors adopt a comedic perspective on their own material -- at times excessively bragging about their own wit, at others pulling the rug out from under their own advice -- and it's a perspective that's utterly contagious. By practicing what it preaches, the book charms, even when it fails to get a belly laugh by, say, going for an obvious fart joke. It's an altogether fun, light-hearted and often "blue" (e.g. rated R) read, littered with hilarious illustrations and scenarios.
There's a sense of nostalgia about this book, too -- you can tell that these writers love old slapstick movies -- and reading the book reminded me of Mad Magazine in its heyday. But I also found it inspirational (and I can't believe I'm admitting this) for brainstorming my own writing ideas. For example, Secret #26 is "Death Portrayed as an Entity" which recommends writers put the grim reaper in their screenplay as "an ice cream salesman, bumbling civil servant, adorable doggie, crotchety librarian, or smarmy bellboy." Hilarious. That got me thinking about other scenarios for a potential horror story in a similar vein (my notes say something cryptic like: "trial testimony by grim reaper arrested for indecent exposure").
From the profane to the sacred...
When I pre-ordered Comedy by the Numbers from its publisher, McSweeney's, I also picked up a curious little book called The New Sins by David Byrne (yes, that's Mr. Big Suit of Talking Heads fame). The New Sins is another parody of textual format, but in this case it aims for the heavens instead of the belly: the book is quite literally a mock up of those freebie bilingual bibles you may have seen, with gold foil stamped lettering imprinted on a faux red-leather cover. Indeed, as a sort of public art performance, Byrne placed copies this book anonymously in hotel rooms during the 2001 Valencia Biennial. Now it's available for sale, "with 9% more sin," in a revised Spanish/English paperback edition.
Blasphemy? Not exactly. The New Sins fictionally purports to originate in newly-discovered ancient scrolls "that seem to imply a negation of vices and [offer] a missing set of sins." It presents itself as a translation of the original tongue of a lost tribe from Croatia. It's a fiction that presents itself as sacred text -- and this may be the argument that Byrne wants to make about all sacred texts, too, though he means no disrespect: to Byrne fictional metaphors are potent and meaningful. Indeed, this book is a very poetic and philosophical musing on the spirit and the true meaning of suffering...and it's quite funny, too. Byrne's book is a thought experiment, and reading the various sins in its catalog ("charity, a sense of humor, beauty, ambition, thrift..." -- yes, he turns what we assume to be virtue on its head) was an experience that for me felt like I was reading an expanded album cover from one of the Talking Heads' old records...while sitting in a cathedral. Byrne's photos, collages and colorful artwork throughout the text are just as important as the writing. The intended meanings are impenetrable, yet they get you to reconsider what you already assume about vice and virtue and religious belief. Although it does make the argument that "heaven and hell do not exist...they are metaphors," the book never tries to substitute a dogmatic belief system of its own. It is purposefully written in a way that is wide open to reader interpretation (in the necessary section called "How to Use this Book," Byrne writes that "the pictures in this book will explain what the text obscures. The text is merely a distraction, a set of brakes, a device to get you to look at the pictures for longer than you would ordinarily.") Cool. It is, in sum, a weirdly fascinating and inspiring book about books and how we rely on words and icons to sustain our faith. And like Comedy by the Numbers, it also got my creative engines running at full speed, producing new story ideas involving the supernatural.
Both fake books are now available cheap (under $15 ea.) from The McSweeney's Store.
If you are disappointed because I didn't specifically recommend a HORROR book to read, why not drop by my excessively annotated list of "Must-Have Horror Anthologies" that was published recently in the Horror Fiction News Network's "Reading Room"? There's plenty there for your reader's eyes to chew on till next time.
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Screaming in Code
Have you ever read Thomas Wiloch? If not, maybe you should. Don't just take my word for it. Thomas Ligotti says Wiloch is writing "what deserve to be included among the best prose poems ever written in any language." And like Ligotti, Wiloch has been quietly working away in relative obscurity in his own "niche" for two decades, developing a one-of-a-kind approach to a form he almost entirely owns. Wiloch writes surrealist short-short pieces, often no longer than a page long, that are as philosophical as they are whimsical, as clever as they are poetic, and as disturbing as they are intelligent -- easy to read prose-poems and vignettes that pull language together as tight as a pirate's knot on an iron anchor.
We don't see books by Thomas Wiloch very often, but his latest book, Screaming in Code, is a great introduction to what he's all about, enhanced with whimsical photocollages generously contributed by the author himself on virtually every page. It's a slim chapbook, 58 pages perfect bound, printed nicely with a glossy color cover (whose only flaw, perhaps, is the thin paper stock used for the book cover). If you're a fan of flash fiction, short-shorts, or prose poems, you'll like what Wiloch is screaming (though often with a tongue in cheek or with a gentle whisper).
Screaming in Code assembles 35 new pieces by Wiloch, launching off with the clever instructional guide, "How to Read this Book" -- a brief and comedic introduction which parodies the label commonly found on those little brown medicine bottles. Its warning ("Do not exceed 8 prose poems in 24 hours or read for more than 10 days") suggests that these capsules of fiction are not to be popped like pills, but savored like everlasting hard candies. If not, Wiloch writes, then "In case of accidental overdose, take a warm TV show to induce vomiting." Writers often take easy jabs at television, but this playful short parody (whose ending I've unfortunately given away) makes a poignant meta-comment about how Wiloch sees his art, pulling in big topics like education, mass culture and media literacy along the way, all in less than seventy-five words. This clever opener both acknowledges and dispenses with any notion that these stories are designed for "short attention span" reading; they are deceptively easy to consume, and sadly, we do need to be taught how to read work like this because they've become so unfamiliar to today's media saturated audiences.
If I'm reading too much into this one piece, it's because many of the stories in Screaming in Code seem only to be whimsically humorous musings upon first read, but upon re-reading, their deeper existential messages and subversive literary meanings creep up on you. In my favorite in the book, "Tell Me I'm Wrong," we listen to a narrator making an argument that gets more and more disturbing (and yet funny) as it develops, beginning with a very scientific hypothesis (that the human body is not composed mostly of water, but of atoms and orbiting particles...in other words, mostly nothing)...and then precedes to use this logic to plead his innocence in a crime. I don't want to say more, because I'd give the whole thing away, but it's a brilliant twist of logic and language that made me laugh, made me nod, and made me wish I'd written such an ingenious little story. Most of the stories in Screaming in Code got the same reaction out of me. And the ideas stuck with me for so long after I'd read them that days later I'd return to the book and read them again, encountering nuances I hadn't realized were there lurking in the writing all along.
In "The Performers," we're told about all the strange plans a performance artist has for a bowl of blood, only to learn about another artist's even darker intentions. In "The Corpse Who Went for a Walk," we get a little anecdote about a dead body who cavalierly pays a visit to a convenience store to get "some air freshener...maybe a couple of magazines" only to have the tables turned on him. In "Tiny White Skulls" we're given a catalog of all the fun uses that human bone can be put to. These are horror stories as much as they are absurdist parables. All of them are no longer than they need to be. All of them are brilliant.
The title, Screaming in Code, suggests that the book might be a work of cyberpunk, but it's probably more accurate to say this book is about existential horror: the title is a statement about the limits of language, and how we struggle to connect and communicate in a world where, really, the only thing that passes between us is letters, digits, symbols, and code. Writers like Wiloch don't just scream in code -- they bathe in it like a performance artist with a peculiar bowl of blood -- and if they seem to be screaming, it's no so much in caution as it is so that you'll pay more attention to the meanings it harbors and the mysteries it holds.
Maybe we should be paying more attention to Thomas Wiloch, too. Because he is certainly paying attention to us.
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A Troika of Weirdness
I've been dying to get the word out about three intriguing (and vastly different) titles before they fall off the literary radar.
First up is John Edward Lawson's new poetry collection, The Troublesome Amputee. I wrote the introduction to this book, which I have to say is one of the weirdest and goriest collections of literary poetry I've ever read. Lawson, a writer at the forefront of the "bizarro" movement, really comes of age as a poet in this collection, which features topics ranging from the most successful scatological poem I've ever read (a piece about zombies tongues that travel in the sewers ("Will Work for Food")) to an ingenious catalog of the ugly side of famous comic book super heroes ("Marvels of Horror"). At turns audacious, at others hilarious -- and always surprisingly inventive -- this book really disturbed and disgusted me in that creepy way that I like so much. And that's saying a lot. The Troublesome Amputee is a generous collection of Lawson's work, clocking in at 96 pages, and revealing a wide range of poetic talent. If you're truly looking for something different, get this trade paperback book for $8.95 from Raw Dog Screaming Press.
I love fast-paced, well-plotted psychological thrillers, but nothing prepared me for the one-two punch of Jeff Strand's remarkably tight new novel, Pressure. This book goes places I wish more thrillers would go: into the dark and twisted pathways of the mind, exploring the boundaries of what we take for consensus reality. Strand -- known primarily as a humorist -- here takes off the funny gloves to deliver a fatal body blow with all seriousness. Pressure is essentially about the tension between two childhood friends, as one of them turns increasingly, morbidly...different. And yet the bond remains, even as Strand ratchets up the dread and things seriously take a turn for the worse. You can't help but identify with the very human protagonist and his escalating trouble with his old friend in this story. It's a great example of the "edgy" thriller, one in which the lines between the moral and the taboo, the innocent and the guilty, are always palpably felt in the emotional rollercoaster ride of the story. The writing is as sharp -- surgical sharp -- and the pace is pitch perfect. I loved it. Get your quality hardcover edition right away from Earthling Publications .
Finally, I want to recommend an offbeat book that's a year old, and probably a flash in the pan of the literary scene, but one that in my opinion should not be overlooked. A lot of people I know enjoy Tom Robbins' quirky novels (like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, or Jitterbug Perfume) for their wild play with language and humorous, whimsical approach to the universe they create. In this book, Wild Ducks Flying Backward: The Short Writings of Tom Robbins, you get what you love about Robbins but in an unusual presentation, along with many welcome and refreshing surprises. The book is really just a collection of ephemera, featuring batches of travel essays, tributes to celebrities, critiques, short-shorts, poems, song lyrics and interview responses -- mostly reprints culled from a wide variety of magazine publications that you might not have read before or cared about. I didn't expect to really give a darn about Robbins' opinion of, say, Jennifer Jason Leigh, or, say, his musings during a visit to an antiques shop in Montana, but after the first sentence of each piece in this book I couldn't stop reading. His love of language perpetually won me over -- it's contagious and fascinating -- and even when I found myself disagreeing with his politics or his treatment of women, I still found myself laughing or subscribing to his idealism. It's as though he realizes that these short essays are not as heavy with significance as his (already rather "light") novels, so he simply enjoys the wordplay and the whimsical musing for its own sake. Although there is very little horror in this book, some of the pieces do have a dark side, and I think it's fair to claim that Robbins is a fantasist. There's plenty of dark stuff to be found in the lyrics of "Honky Tonk Astronaut" or the poem, "Triplets" (with lines like, "I went to Satan's house./It was supposed to be an Amway party./I wanted one of those hard as hell steak knives.") And if you enjoy my "Blather" department in The Goreletter, I have a strong feeling you'll be entertained by this book (I mean, one entry in Wild Ducks is simply dedicated to Robbins' love of the letter Z, for crying out loud). Wild Ducks Flying Backward was published by Bantam in Sept 2005 to a mild reaction by mainstream critics, but even though there is some unevenness to it, I think it's a pretty solid book, thick with think pieces, loaded with laughs. You can still find it on amazon.com for under $10.
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Bob the Angry Flower: Dog Killer
Meet "Bob the Angry Flower," Stephen Notley's outrageous main character in his comic strip by the same name. Bob is a pissed off sunflower -- that icon of happiness and sunshine. But Bob's disposition isn't sunny, sappy, or sugary -- he's angry as hell. This embodies Notley's approach to the form: he turns what we assume about popular culture icons inside-out and upside-down, in the process challenging our worldview. And it makes for a very entertaining, thought-provoking read.
Dog Killer -- his latest collection of comics -- is rife with wry political commentary and subversive play, but it's also an appealing work of dark surrealism. In Bob's world, the sky hails eyeballs and the local furniture store sells chairs made of human skulls. Bob follows his shadow underground, only to discover a Starbucks at the end of the cavernous journey. Bob slays ghosts with a samurai sword, and begs to know why they are haunting him ("Stop...killing...us!" is their answer!). Notley's sly approach has got a knock-out underground power to it: Notley plays freely with form, experiments with structure, and just takes no prisoners in his attack on conventional truth and habitual ways of seeing. In this book's introduction, Ted Rall describes "Notley's rageful ranting" as revealing a "tragic honesty" about the American universe through some "pretty scary allegory" that's "grim" even when it's optimistic. "This brutal appraisal of the human condition," Rall writes, is "never crueler than when it's turned inward, [and this] bugs the hell out of people." It's courageous alternative art. Sounds a lot like what I enjoy about horror fiction.
So who is Bob? Why is he angry? Why floral? Hard to say, but he's one of the more original characters you'll find in the genre. Bob is, well, a sunflower embodying the morphed personality of Sam Kinison and Denis Leary, hopped up on some strange mixture of Starbucks, psychedelics, and anabolic steroids. He reminds me of a poster I once saw, called "Defiance," which featured a tiny mouse snarling and flipping a middle finger at the eagle descending upon it from above with its dangerous talons. That's Bob: defiance, personified. Which might explain why you haven't met him before -- Notley's character goes against the grain of most cartoons on the comix page. So thank goodness for books like Dog Killer, the fifth collection of BTAF in print.
Bob often has a message, but I can imagine that he often puzzles readers who don't quite understand just how deep this defiance goes. Take the title strip, for example, Dog Killer." [viewable online] All that happens here is that Bob shows up at the doorstep of a white man in a suit, collar opened, head heavy, eyes evasive, saying "Thanks for coming." Bob shoulders his shotgun and says, "I understand. You need your dog put down and your not man enough to do it." Bob goes in the back yard, pets the sick dog for four panels, soothing it with "good boys" ... and then blows its head open (the extreme closeup on the furry skull bursting is so excessive, you can only make out the fanged upper palate in the carnage). Then Bob blows on his finger in the end panel: "Ooh, I burnt my finger!"
Most people, I imagine, might call this gratuitous violence. A juvenile thrill, akin to pulling the wings off a fly. But as most savvy readers realize, there's more to such a spectacle of guts than first meets the eye. For one thing, there's drama in the suspenseful soothing of the dog. This one page is worth a thousand Old Yellers. Then there's the ugly truth exposed by the blast. It's everything Old Yeller never had the guts to do. This is accented by Bob's exposure of the pettiness of human pain ("I burnt my finger!"). And an attack on the lack of backbone in much of the middle class, refusing to both soothe those who are failing and to get their hands dirty when there's an uncomfortable problem that needs to be solved.
In the back of the book, Notley gives excellent annotations which read like an insightful and witty "director's commentary" track on a DVD. Notley's discussion of "Dog Killer" reveals that it's based on a true story from childhood. He also manages to unveil his general approach to the comic as a whole: "Just as [Bob]'s holding the dog's head down and coaxing it, I'm holding the reader's head down until that moment I make them look at a dog's head getting pulped. Sometimes you have to take cherished notions into the back yard and blow their heads off, and you can't look away when you do it." I couldn't agree more.
Such thematic depth can be found in even the most silly or bizarre entries in the book -- all of them force you to look at something in a new light, from a skewed angle. There's a lot of meat and grizzle to chew on here, in 158 pages of high energy drawing. I think this book will appeal to horror fans very much. But Bob the Angry Flower eludes genre, ranging from direct political commentary (a number of the pieces in Dog Killer refer explicitly to the 2004 Presidential Election) to surrealism (in one entry, Bob awakens as a bug and cursing Kafka and then transplanting his floral head onto a clone in a gory, pitiless act of decapitation) to science-fiction (Bob makes killer robots) and the gross-out (Bob sticks his fingers in the squirming maggots of a dead bird over and over again in one strip -- and that's the whole bit). I am hardly an expert on the graphic fiction genre, but I think it's safe to say that Notley's approach to sequential art is incomparable. The manic and raw drawing style, the play with titles and captions, and the sheer audacity of the premises all reminded me a little bit of the expressionist flourishes of Jhonen Vasquez's brilliantly sick comic, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, but without the Goth sensibility. Skewed, dark, twisted, smart, sick, scary, witty...even these words don't do it justice. That's why it's art. And why it's angry.
You gotta see it for yourself. Dog Killer is Stephen Notley's fifth compilation of BTAF cartoons, but the first American collection (his work originates in Canada). It's bound to be a hit. The trade paperback is hitting stores this June from Tachyon Publications, for $12.95. Get it while it's hot-headed.
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Few realize that the term "anthology" -- which we use to denote collections of short stories by different authors, usually following a shared theme or genre -- comes for the Greek word for "flower-gathering." Corpse Blossoms, the first volume in a series of anthologies from the new horror publisher, Creeping Hemlock Press, is more than just a collection of some dead leaves -- it's like an amazingly fulfilling chilled salad. Or should I say a very full, chilling salad? Either way, it's fiction with an earthy, dark flavor in every bite. And though I'm more than satisfied by the meal, I can't wait till they toss together their next dish.
Edited by Julia and RJ Sevin, Corpse Blossoms will immediately strike you as a different kind of horror anthology the second you hold it in your hands. If an anthology is a flower-gathering, then the editors have arranged these twisted clippings into a very distinctive bouquet. First off, there's something inherently gentle about the package -- from the charcoal image of the funeral flower on its gray front cover to the high quality green bindings and pastel cover with a copper foil stamp. Usually I don't judge a book by its cover, but when I examine a new publisher's first offering, I am interested in the investment they put into the quality and I can't help but judge whether or not they really know what they're doing based on the book's production value, in addition to its general aesthetic unity. This book sends a message: the stories you're about to read are high quality. And the book has a distinctive character. Corpse Blossoms evinces a soft horror mood that's really somewhat eerie -- like a thing found abandoned in a mortuary, yet quivering with a life all its own.
So do the stories match the quality and character of the book? Are they, in the publisher's words, "tales of quiet terror and screaming fear by some of the finest authors in the field"? Indeed, for the most part, they are, and though there were many fine horror anthologies published this past year (indeed, we may be experiencing a horror anthology renaissance), Corpse Blossoms holds its own as one of the finest horror anthologies to come out this season.
One of the most interesting elements of the book is the dictum in the foreword, which begs the reader to "read these exceptional stories in the order that they appear for full effect...this is no lottery." Corpse Blossoms has twenty-four stories, many by longstanding and reputable writers in the horror genre (Gary Braunbeck, Tom Piccirilli, Ramsey Campbell, Bentley Little, Steve Rasnic Tem) and many by writers who have made a noticeably significant splash in the horror scene since the turn of the Millennium (Kealan Patrick Burke, Scott Nicholson, Darren Speegle, Bev Vincent, Nick Mamatas, Steve Vernon, Brian Freeman). The fiction is generally harder in tone than you might expect, given the gentility of the packaging. In the stories themselves, the "quiet terror" usually stems from a character whose reality has started splitting apart at the seams, and the writers ratchet up the creep-outs until everything erupts in a moment of "screaming fear" -- and for some, explosive gore -- in an emotionally powerful way.
I can't talk about all of the tales, but let me share my thoughts about three that really stuck with me, to give you a sense of the book's range.
One of the weirdest pieces in this is collection is "The Last Few Curls of Gut Rope" by Steve Vernon. The title is a tad bit misleading, because Vernon's tale is really a surrealist piece rather than a gorefest (though you won't be entirely disappointed in the climax if a little gut-wrenching splat is what you're seeking when you read this one). What makes "Gut Rope" surreal? Well, if you've ever read my short-short story, "Domestic Fowl," then this is "Domestic Fowl" to the 20th power. It's about a guy who orders eggs at a restaurant and is served a live squawking chicken ("You asked for eggs," the waitress says, "but the chicken comes first.") And then it just gets weirder and weirder, playing off the familiar chicken-and-egg formula by "dishing out" many absurdist moments and encounters, until it reaches its bizarrely-feathered conclusion. Vernon is gaining a reputation for his humorous voice, and though this story does not disappoint in that regard, it also reveals a layer of psychological depth underpinning his fiction that is getting deeper and more profound than in the past. It's one of his best tales yet.
Another wildly-imagined contribution to the collection comes from Bentley Little, whose opening paragraph is probably the most creatively hilarious of the book:
He found it in a shack in the desert, a horrible thing of jellyfish and claws, scales and squid, bound into shape by strands of dark kelpy seaweed. It was sitting in the center of the rotted wood floor, and under his gaze it shifted, moved, tried to slink away beneath a sandy bench, all the while making a hideous squeaking squelching sound.
'Dad?' he said.
This is from Little's "Finding Father," a quirky and emotionally disturbing tale about a trucker who is hunting down his father, who, it seems, is leaving a trail for him to follow in the form of bathroom stall graffiti. The premise of this one is a little hard to swallow, but that's almost universally true of Bentley Little's short stories. Little always ambitiously pushes the envelope of horror fiction and writes horror with a contagious sense of frenetic glee that inevitably takes you on such a ride that you not only forgive the absurdity behind his stories, but also gladly join him in his playground of the unreal. This story had me at "jellyfish and claws." They latched onto me and I went along for an outrageous descent into terror.
I love stories like these; tales that go over the top in a quest for unconscious thrills. Their unsettling humor pushes you over the edge and into some psychic state of disbelief akin to madness. Corpse Blossoms is at its best when it delves into the psychological -- rather than supernatural -- side of horror. And it doesn't just go for the outré or the darkly funny. Many of these stories, particularly those early in the book, evoke the eerie mood of dark fantasy, working to unhinge the reader's confidence in conventional reality. And the book hosts some shining treasures in this regard. For example, Kealan Patrick Burke's "Empathy" -- one of the longer pieces in the book -- ratchets the terror up in sharp increments that build like the tension of a lug wrench tightening a nut bit by bit up to its breaking point. In this exceptionally well-developed story, a man is so emotionally scarred by watching a torture scene on the internet (just out of curiosity), that he can't stop envisioning the visceral scene playing out again and again, especially on his family. Burke effectively gets us inside the mind of the haunted and obsessed, as the protagonist's nightmares seep progressively into his waking life. "Empathy," while somewhat familiar in its plot of traumatic "repetition-compulsion," is one of the strongest pieces in the collection, written with a rock solid narrative voice and a masterful control over psychological suspense. It's certainly worthy of an award for best scary novella of the year.
If Corpse Blossoms is a gourmet salad, then the leaves have an occasional brown spots here and there, but that happens when the kitchen doesn't sanitize out all the flavor. I encountered a few typos as I read Corpse Blossoms ("at" for "ate" in one climactic scene really threw me off), but the fact is, I've seen far worse mistakes made by established pro publishers before. In the back of the book, the editors write about their own feelings about each of their story selections -- I found this very insightful, lending even more character and editorial panache to the book; it drove home my feeling that this is a publisher who has a strong editorial direction (though perhaps it's a bit indulgent at times... as an author, I think I'd be mildly embarrassed if readers were explicitly told that my story was sent back several times for a revision, even though that's a natural part of the process. And I will warn you that sometimes the chatter about the tales in this appendix gives away key elements of the story, so hold off on reading the ingredients list until you've finished the bite).
Finally, it's worth noting that the publishers of this book were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. The fact that they were able to put together such a fine collection and launch a new quality publishing line while being dislocated and traumatized by that terrible chaos is not only admirable, it's miraculous. As they note in the book's postscript, this project "served as something to take our minds off of mold-covered walls and ceilings collapsed...something on which to focus, a goal, a signpost, a destination." This passion is evident everywhere in the book, and if it was their destination, then, well, they've certainly arrived! Editors with this kind of dedication to good storytelling and quality publishing really deserve the support of readers who love munching on a good salad of fiction that has a real bite to it. This review has been lengthy, but I've only shown you a small part of the menu and shared a few morsels. I highly recommend you order a large bowl of Corpse Blossoms and sample this anthology for yourself.
Corpse Blossoms is a $40 hardcover limited to 500 trade copies, 500 signed copies, and 26 lettered leather copies available from the publisher at Creeping Hemlock Press or from your friendly favorite horror bookseller (like Shocklines.com)
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The Outsider Looking In
Outsiders, edited by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick (Roc Books, 2005), is one of the best anthologies of short fiction to come out of the genre in some time. In fact, I would go so far as to call it pioneering, because it redraws the boundaries of the horror genre in a very successful way, in addition to being packed with excellent scary stories. It doesn't call itself a horror anthology (instead, it is billed as "22 All New Stories from the Edge"), but if it were published in 1989, it certainly would broadcast its status as one. Virtually all the contributors (Bentley Little, Poppy Z. Brite, and Jack Ketchum, to name just three of the twenty-two) have been called "horror" writers or are still considered such by the public, so I find this book foremost an interesting commentary on the status of the horror genre. Essentially, horror authors have become "outsiders" to -- and alienated by -- mainstream publishing, which these days tends to eschew horror (not as a genre, per se, but as a marketing label or categorical "index"). Look at how the introduction dances around categories in poetic and fashionable terms, carving an identity in relation to dark fantasy: "Come with us and explore strange new worlds through stories that investigate the darkest of fantasies: a New Weird bathed in classic Gothic eeriness and touched by metaphors of human darkness." These are perfectly legitimate terms for describing this "type" of fiction, but one can't help but notice how unsettled it all is about the terminology. Just look at all the synonyms that Holder and Kilpatrick masterfully employ: strange, dark fantasy, New Weird, Gothic, eerie, dark. There's almost an obvert attempt to disavow the term "horror" in all of this. But no matter how you slice it, it's scary.
I'm not suggesting that this book is only so much traditional horror fiction repackaged to placate perceived trends in the market. It's actually very contemporary and boundary-blurring. But there is a way in which the horror genre is the unnameable creature lurking beneath it all. Not outside, but in. And I like that. It's subversive. I think it's kind of neat that this book is virtually a horror compilation camouflaged as a collection of "edge" fiction. The best horror often subversively lurks in the clean and carpeted bookstores of America, waiting to surprise its reader when he or she cracks open the covers and the jack springs from its box. It's when what's outside one's expectations crashes in that the horror erupts.
And maybe horror fiction ought to have been called "outsider" fiction all along, anyway: stories that explore unreality and the secret truths one can discover only by rejecting the mainstream realities that are handed to us, whether through the occult means of the supernatural story or the psychosis of the serial killer. Of course, "fantasy" is itself an alternate reality, so "dark fantasy" would be just as good a term. But fifty years ago, Colin Wilson wrote one of the defining books on such "existentialist" issues in fiction, called The Outsider, which deepens a reading of the Holder and Kilpatrick collection. The Outsider, Wilson argues, is a type of thinker akin to the doomed hero in H.G. Wells' story, "The Country of the Blind": he is the one man able to see the truth. As Wilson puts it: "To the objection that he is unhealthy and neurotic, [the Outsider] replies: 'In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.' His case, in fact, is that he is the one man who knows he is sick in a civilization that doesn't know it is sick...even further...it is human nature that is sick, and the Outsider is the man who faces this unpleasant fact...a negative position which the Outsider declares to be the essence of the world as he sees it." The revelation of this truth is the moment of horror. And this, I think, is what Robert Bloch meant when he proclaimed that "horror is the removal of masks." Good dark fiction unmasks conventional reality to show another layer lurking beneath the surface, one often initially perceived as "sick" or "diseased."
What was great about horror in its heyday was that it could take this status of "outsiderness" for granted, and cut a layer deeper. I'm not so sure that today's fiction can go there, because the reader's unreality, in some ways, has become so conventionalized under the onus of the unrealities of today's media culture. The unreal is as close to us as our TV sets and computer monitors. And perhaps that's what makes this collection so interesting to me. I suggested earlier that Outsiders could just have well have been published twenty years ago and that it's exploring themes that are at least fifty -- if not a hundred -- years old. I'm tempted to say that horror fiction always points back to the old and the universal realities lurking under the surface of the new. But that isn't quite fair because there is certainly a twenty-first century sense of alienation that is being explored here.
Take David J. Schow's excellent contribution, "Expanding Your Capabilities Using Frame/Shift Mode" -- a story about a DVD pirate who discovers a particularly bizarre effect on the "Frame/Shift" button on his remote control. The button allows him to manipulate objects on screen so that he can, for example, peel off layers of the actors clothing with it. It explores the assumption we have that "you just have to know the code; which buttons to push" in order to control our universe. And, if you know your Schow, you know that he will explore the fetishism of media technology by "pushing the buttons" all the way to the extreme. Inevitably, the character with his remote is not only voyeuristically getting off on undressing actresses on the screen, but also removing their skin. Literally, Schow is "removing the mask" of not only the screen image but also our relation to such things; and the protagonist of this story not only excessively gets off on watching, say, skeletons having sex, he explores home movies and considers starting a variation on the porn business...until things take a surprising turn. This is a horror story in the traditional sense. About a lonely outsider. And yet it is also about today's fantasies, today's social relations, today's media technology fetishism. It reminded me of Nicholson Baker's novel, The Fermata, in its representation of a "control fantasy." And it's one of my favorites in the collection.
Also excellent is Steve Rasnic Tem's opening story, "The Company You Keep" (which is as surrealist in its method as a painting by Magritte) about a "nowhere man" so lonely, he somehow finds himself surrounded by a pack of others who are exactly like him, all of them making the same exact gestures and expressions. This "legion" of mirror-image figures becomes almost a herd, and soon we uncover Tem's wry comment on our culture: that we are all so utterly alone, and yet ironically bonded by our alienation. In that, we find community as "outsiders." But Tem takes a horrifying turn when he reveals that this alienation can coldly lead to our self-destruction. It's one of Tem's best stories ever, and a perfect "opener" to this book -- which raises the issue regarding the human condition today in a stunning manner. It's quite a brilliant allegory.
And there's much more. While a few of the stories in Outsiders don't quite match the caliber of Tem's brilliance or the level of Schow's darkness, the book as a whole is definitely a work of excellence and an example of the best horror fiction being written today, even if it doesn't call itself such. The stories by Kathe Koja, Michael Marano, Bentley Little, Brian Hodge, Elizabeth Engstrom, Eliabeth Massie and Joe Lansdale are all outstanding because they are intelligent and sophisticated -- and offering up comments on what it means to be alienated in today's unreal wold. This collection is worthy of acclaim.
Also worth acclaim: half of the contributors to Outsiders are women and the book is edited by two women. That's remarkable, I think. And perhaps even a retroactively ironic statement on what the "insiders" of the horror trade may have neglected and marginalized in the heyday of the genre at their own peril: inclusiveness.
Outsiders is a $14.95 trade paperback available from Roc Books. A must read. (So is H.G. Wells' story, which you can find in a book that would make a good compliment to this one, Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, edited by Italo Calvino).
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Strange Itineraries by Tim Powers lives up to its title: it's a trip.
Tim Powers is a powerhouse fantasy novelist. He's probably known best for his historical fantasy, and books like The Anubis Gates and Declare have won him a huge following. I think my favorite is Last Call, a book about the inspiration behind playing cards come to life, which was one of the handful of card-related stories I read as I was working on my novel, Play Dead. It taught me more about writing than it did about cards, per se. An accomplished writer of what you might call "fabulism," Tim Powers talent is bringing the mythic and the marvelous to life while at the same time retaining a strict psychological realism, dramatizing the way characters think and feel in deeply penetrating ways, regardless of whether they're magicians or monsters or men. The world in a Tim Powers book is marvelously unique, yet at the same time his settings are very concrete and keenly detailed and the people are undeniably just like you and me. But being "psychologically" realistic does not make Tim Powers a "realist" by any means -- indeed, his mission seems to be to bend reality, and Strange Itineraries succeeds at unhinging it at every stop along the way as he takes us on a tour of some exceptionally weird landscapes and frightfully uncanny mental vistas.
Strange Itineraries collects nine fantastic tales by Tim Powers, culled from anthologies (like the mega-horror book, 999), collectible chapbooks, and familiar serials like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov's SF Magazine. It's a great sampling of Powers' talent (as well as that of James P. Blaylock, his collaborator on one third of the stories included here -- almost enough to make me think he deserves to share the book's byline). The stories range from peculiar fantasy to disturbing (but subtle) psychological horror and twisted alternate reality. Powers is not a horror writer in the strictest sense, but he can be very dark and mind-bending (and often, funny), but what really floors me is his sheer imagination. He takes risks and always pulls it off.
In his introduction, Paul di Filippo refers to this collection as a book of "haunted" stories. This is an excellent way to think of Strange Itineraries -- though it is not so much a collection of "ghost stories" as it is a tour of diverse settings where things are not as they seem. In the title piece, "Itinerary," a character steps into a short circuit in space and time and Powers' effectively loops the plot structure of this story in a way that really gets you at the end. (You'll also learn why this book has a porcelain duck on its cover). One of the darkest tales in the collection, "Through and Through," visits a priest with a ghost in his confessional, a specter who looks him "through and through" with surprising results. "Pat Moore" is the doppleganger story to end all doppleganger stories, where the title character encounters more Pat Moores than even Pat Moore can imagine. In "The Better Boy" -- perhaps the best "magical garden" tale I've ever read -- Powers shows what happens when a man's "inventor's pants" go missing and throw off his plans for the tomatoes...and so much more. The closing story, "Night Moves," invokes the specter of death in a mind bending and sophisticated way, rife with irony. I really can't describe these stories without either relying on gross overgeneralizations or spoiling things by giving everything away. So I'll just stop now and say that if you're looking for an escape, climb aboard Strange Itineraries and prepare to launch on a very bizarre tour hosted by one of the most brilliant imaginations of our day.
Strange Itineraries is available in trade paperback for $15.95 (US) from Tachyon Publications. (And congratulations to Tachyon on their tenth anniversary!)
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A Macabre Miscellany
I found Geoffrey Abbott's treasury of trivia, A Macabre Miscellany (Virgin Books, 2004), entirely by accident. I was gift shopping at the local chain bookstore, and somehow found this morbid little book in the Reference section. After reading the back cover -- which calls it "a compendium of carnage, a treasure chest of torture and terror...the very best of the very worst things that can happen to a person" -- I immediately knew that I had indeed found a gift...for myself!
Published by the quirky book division of UK outfit Virgin Entertainment, this 4x6" title manages to collect "a thousand gruesome and gory facts" culled from world history by none other than a former Beefeater at the Tower of London. In his introduction to the book -- which is essentially a compendium of bizarre historical factoids revolving around torture, mutilation, and capital punishment -- Abbot explains that in his work at the Tower of London, he would most often get lurid questions from tourists who would want to know more about the execution chambers than the Crown Jewels...and so he began to research the answers, which led to a lifelong obsession. The book is divided into chapters with titles like "What a Way to Go!" and "Bones, Brains and Body Parts" which catalog the extreme lengths that "civilized" cultures have gone to in order to exact punishment, cruelty and revenge. The book is filled with "little known facts" that would make for delightful dinner conversation. Here's a typical entry (and one of the tamer ones, I might add):
"Before severed heads were displayed in public on London Bridge, they were preserved by being parboiled in salt water and cumin seed to deter the sea birds from eating the flesh."
There are nine hundred and ninety-nine more where that came from. Reading this book I learned about virtually every execution method tried by man (I particularly like the "Brazen Bull" (which boiled victims inside a golden calf) and the ancient Chinese punishment of sawing a man in half, vertically, starting at the head); bizarre medical experiments (like the time a dog's head was sewn onto a freshly guillotined corpse...and momentarily brought to life!), and numerous freakish delights (like the story of Peter Kuren, the "Monster of Dusseldorf," whose blood fetish was so neurotic that even at the guillotine he expressed regret, "not for his crimes, but because he would not be able to hear his own blood pumping out after the blade had fallen"). I learned how long it takes a body to be cremated and when the last beheading was performed in Germany. Abbott's talent for digging up history's horrors -- from the banal to the absurd -- greatly impressed me.
If you like true crime, you'll get a kick out of this book. The old cliché, truth is stranger than fiction, is proven once again...and as a horror writer, this book really inspired me in ways I can begin to imagine. And it made me laugh, of course, too. I highly recommend this title. I'll be looking for Abbot's other book, The Executioner Always Chops Twice, the next time I go gift shopping...and I'll definitely be picking up More Macabre Miscellany: 1000 MORE Hideous And Horrifying Acts when it's released this September!
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Inhuman Magazine (#2)
Allen Koszowski's new magazine, Inhuman, is all about one thing: the art of monstrosity. It's theme is the "inhuman" -- the monstrous -- and every story in the digest is a good old-fashioned monster story to the core. I say "good old-fashioned" because there's a nostalgic undercurrent to the magazine's approach that really sent me right back to the days when I would watch Creature Features on Saturday afternoon television. But that doesn't mean that the writing isn't fresh, original, or modern -- indeed, Inhuman entertains while it also manages to call into question what it means to be human, from a variety of angles. It purposely avoids the trappings of the psycho killer story or the extremes of splat-for-splat's sake. In fact, its strong editorial focus on monsters is what amazes me about the magazine: it's admirably fresh while also remaining true to the entertainment value of a good monster story, and it's clear-cut focus gives the magazine a refreshingly assured identity, compared to a lot of other magazines that seem to make it all up as they go along. I know that any issue of Inhuman that I open up will fulfill its promise to return me to the thrill and wonderment of horror, by virtue of the monsters at its core.
Tightening its thematic bond is the supremely talented artwork, ALL of which is not only monster-centric, but also aesthetically centered on the traditional pen-and-ink craftsmanship of the illustrious editor, Allen K. himself. You don't have to read a lot of horror magazines to recognize his style: prolifically appearing all over the scene since 1973, Allen Koszowski has been virtually everywhere in the genre press, from Cemetery Dance to Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine to Weird Tales. I see his signature style in any number of collectable horror books I've got on my shelves, and even in many of the underground magazines I myself appeared in long ago. You can recognize his craftsmanship the instant you see the ominous stippling, the brash lines, the cinematic realism bent into surreal extremities. No one conjures creatures from a bottle of india ink like Allen K. and rare is the artist who can pull off a magazine like this, featuring entirely his own artwork alone. But Allen K. makes it not only look easy, but natural. Inhuman reads like an illuminated art portfolio without the trappings of an artist's narcissism; paging through it to see what he's exploring through his art nowadays is half the joy of reading the magazine. And the synergy between the stories and his illustrations is nothing short of brilliant. For you see, he's not only a master of horrifying pen-and-ink drawings of monsters...backed by years of experience, he's a master of capturing a story's mood and essence by illustrating a key object, character, or scene from the story world. He brings to life a lot of the monsters that are lurking inside the stories themselves.
And the stories Allen K. is publishing are all wonderful. You can tell how well-read this artist and his assistant editors are in the genre; the authors they choose are excellent examples of the best working in horror today (and in year's past). I already mentioned the magazine's nostalgic longing for classic monster stories, and Inhuman actually reprints vintage tales in the genre -- often contemporary classics that deserve another look. In issue #2, Joe R. Lansdale's "Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back" is presented alongside a simply awesome art piece by Allen K. that brings Lansdale's post-nuclear "flowers" to life in an uncanny way. The story definitely stands the test of time and like many of Lansdale's pieces it is a must-read. Also reprinted in this issue are wonderful stories by Ramsey Campbell, Thomas F. Monteleone, and Brain Lumley -- a few of which I'd missed and was very happy to have had the chance to read. The illustration for Lumley's "The Spider in the Bathtub" is so striking that I would love to have a blown-up giant poster made out of it and put up on my bathroom wall. The original monster fiction in the magazine is also superb, and I was particularly struck by Elizabeth Massie's masterfully bizarre doppelganger story, "Donald Meets Arnold," which does an expert job of making the protagonist's hilarious eccentricity completely unlikable so we'll root for the justice to come when his uncanny and monstrous "alterego" comes to life. Allen K's accompanying art for this story is surrealistically gruesome -- and pulls you right into the story so you'll want to understand it. Also appearing in this issue with new tales involving everything from alien aberrations to tentacled terrors are Shikhar Dixit, Michael Laimo, Tim Curran, Don D'Ammassa and C.J. Henderson. All of them are entertaining and, well, scary! The magazine is rounded out nicely with film reviews, poetry, and essays on the genre.
Finally, it's worth noting that Inhuman attempts to do what is virtually impossible in today's horror genre: keep the content friendly for young readers, without lowering the psychological and literary depth of the stories. While the violence factor is high, sexuality is kept to a minimum and offensive language is virtually absent. This is a conscious choice, as Allen K makes clear in his introduction to issue #2, since the Lansdale story made him contemplate the matter of what's worth censoring and what's not. I applaud Allen K's integrity on this issue; monster stories are naturally appealing to the youth, and it just makes good sense to appease parents in order to show the next generation just how good horror can be. I know that a lot of my early love of the genre came from reading magazines that teetered somewhere between a PG and R rating when I was young. I only wish there had been a magazine like Inhuman around. Thankfully, there is now. And it's no kiddie mag. Inhuman is highly recommended to anyone, young and old, who enjoys monsters, dark art, and the best fiction in the genre.
Allen K's Inhuman is a digest-sized, perfect bound magazine, with full color cover and b/w interiors. Nothing short of a bargain at $6.95 a copy. Pick up a copy through shocklines.com or browse around on the publisher's website at Die Monster Die Publishing.
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A Fistful of Brain
One of the most gleefully scatological and outrageously clever novellas I've read in a while is "Long Horn, Big Shaggy," by Steve Vernon, recently published by Black Death Books. How can you not like a spaghetti western horror story whose subtitle says "A Tale of Wild West Terror and Reanimated Buffalo"? That's right: it's a zombie buffalo story. But there's so much more to this tale than undead livestock. The book opens with a man trying to put down his fallen stolen horse, with shots coming at him from every direction (for something like 1800 words of splatstick gunfire hijynx) and even though he inevitably gets hit in the head, opening it open "like a can of peaches" and splattering "a fistful of brains" across the dust, you know he'll be back from the dead to seek revenge. Vernon's novella starts off funny and the gallops like, well, like an undead stallion into sheer hilarity. You encounter ghosts and villains and more in this melting pot cannibal stew of Wild West mythology and campy b-movie gore. It's a silly premise, sure, and a story like this would be a mess if it weren't for the sure-fisted delivery of Vernon's prose, which both keeps the humor churning and the body parts flying along the way. The tale also gets more and more interesting as the plot develops, though you have to be willing to keep your 3D b-movie glasses on while you read. The cowpoke dialect of his characters are so spot on you can smell the chewing tobacco on their breath. One of them -- a severed, crawling head that pulls itself along by champing its own jawbone, searching for food -- is impossibly hilarious but quite effective, it turns out, for a viewpoint character. I found myself wondering "Well how in tarnation is he going to top THAT?" as I moved from chapter to chapter, and Vernon somehow managed to do it. He's got the gift. This is a book that could have been a movie -- because it's obviously saturated with cinematic influence -- and yet, I think it works as a book and would fail miserably if it were actually turned into cinematic fair. You be the judge.
If you've got a taste for over-the-top gross-out stories in the campy mode of the Evil Dead movies, this is definitely a book you should look into. "Long Horn, Big Shaggy" is a quick read, coming in at about 100 pages. For ordering details, visit the publisher's website. For a photo of the goofy stuffed buffalo Vernon made, visit his.
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Three Dark Poets
In the latter half of 2004, three outstanding horror poetry books came out that deserve a look because each is an example of a horror writer working at the top of their game. In this review, I want to look briefly at one hardback, one trade paperback, and one underground chapbook. Each one satisfied my horror appetite on a different level.
The first is Tom Piccirilli's Waiting My Turn to Go Under the Knife, a limited hardbound book from Fairwood Press' new book line, Darkwood Press. This collection of verse by the author of the notable novel, A Choir of Ill Children, is a great example of just how good horror poetry can speak to the human condition. I dare say this is a "literary" book because Piccirilli investigates death and pain in a way that cuts close to the heart. You feel sorry for his narrators, who are universally traumatized by their very real pasts or suffering deeply from the existential horrors of everyday life. There's a lot of twisted humor in this book, too -- as is always evident in Pic's flair for long titles which are virtually whole poems in and of themselves (consider "When the Proper Spelling of Nietzsche Becomes a Metaphor for Age, Love, Loss, Mercy, and the Rage That Wants Out (with Pigeons)"). I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that this is one of Piccirilli's most creatively playful and deeply dark poetry books, and if you call yourself a lover of poetry it's the must-read of the year.
An equally accomplished book in every way is Charlee Jacob's The Desert (Dark Regions Press), which also features 100 pages of excellent verse by a poet whose work always strikes me with dread. Like Piccirilli, Jacob is one of few writers in the genre who has a voice so distinctive that you can recognize it without a byline. She writes the way a spellcaster conjures evil and she's one of the few who can utterly creep me out in ways I can't quite explain. Things sneak up on you when you read a Charlee Jacob poem -- it's as though there's something truly horrible roiling beneath the language and wriggling between the lines as she wrings the words for every drop of darkness they're worth. She isn't afraid to go over the top. She's so good at terror that there's no other way to put it: Jacob disturbs. The Desert features both new work and familiar reprints, but it's got more range and maturity than her other poetry books and this is surely the best body of dark fantasy she's produced. Definitely one of the top poetry books of 2004. Dark Regions has been quietly publishing some of the best poetry books for the past two years, in fact, so I recommend you take a gander at their website.
And finally, if you're not afraid of extremes or are looking for something akin to punk rock, I recommend taking a look at Kurt Newton's new chapbook, PerVERSEities II. You don't need to read the first edition; it's not like there's a PerVERSEity saga or anything. This is just a companion volume to the first collection released by Naked Snake Press much earlier in the year (and also recommended). Which is another way of saying that Kurt is up to no good again. This book features the same outrageous ingenuity from the mind of Kurt Newton that we got in the first volume. PerVERSEities II is an excellent collection, revealing Newton's mastery of balancing extreme gore against social issues and psychological traumas. It isn't sexually perverse -- well, maybe a little -- but it's mostly a perversion of verse itself, pushing the boundaries of poetic convention to generate some truly grizzly images and freaky frissons. I like Kurt Newton because he uses a simple style, one that always manages to catch me off guard. In the PerVERSEities collections, Newton goes for the throat and you get the sense that these are some of his more disgusting poems. But even when he's waxing poetic about roadkill or probes the erotics of wounds, he is on a never-ending quest for originality, and there are a number of unique concept pieces in this volume, from the silly "Mad Cow Patty" to wholly twisted love letter, "Letterhead." Illustrated by the very disturbing pen drawings of Chris Friend, this book deserves to be an underground hit.
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Eve by Aurelio O'Brien
I don't read science fiction novels as often as I used to, but some book premises are so wacky that you just gotta see whether the author can pull them off. Such is the case with Eve by Aurelio O'Brien, a bizarre story about an outdated robot and his owner, lost amid a Huxlean culture in the distant future. In the 31st century, death is an anachronism, and bio-engineered "creature comforts" dominate the world, functioning solely to keep humans (a.k.a. "Randoms" since they weren't technologically programmed or engineered) in an eternal state of bliss. Machines are an anachronism -- mankind has engineered biomass servants that exist solely to please itself. Things are so perfect that the meaningfulness of life itself has gone sour. Penster (a relic robot) and Govil (his ancient owner) have become so alienated by their amazingly lifeless world of living matter that, as an act of resistance, they team up to create something "random" again from recycled biomass -- setting out to construct a deliberately average woman, whom they term Eve. And once a new "random" is created, it threatens the system, because unlike the rest of humanity, she hasn't been sterilized to control overpopulation.
I hope my plot description hasn't lost you. The story is clever, but complicated, and it takes a lot of exposition -- albeit humorous -- for O'Brien to build to his world of living commodity fetishes. At the center is GenieCorp --- a 31st century corporation that has taken control of the world -- which manufactures strange devices out of biomass, servicing all human desires with freakish living creatures. For example, "Snakelights" are literally snakes with lights in their bodies rather than the Black & Decker tools we know so well, and "VolksvaagenBugs" are insectoid carriers with seats embedded in the thorax. There are plenty of these puns on commercial culture throughout the book -- indeed, encountering ServAnts and AlarmCocks and other animated commodities is half the fun of the book. They make Eve at once unique, witty, and a lot of fun to read. It's almost cartoony in its outrageous humor -- something like Futurama or The Jetsons as told by a mutation between David Cronenberg and Aldous Huxley. His writing is not composed as artfully as a Mark Leyner or a Philip K. Dick, but O'Brien's postmodern science fiction is deftly imagined and he manages to generate one hell of an entertaining satire on consumer culture with Eve.
The book has some weaknesses: Eve gets off to a slow start because O'Brien's 31st century world is so intricately designed. The use of an emotionless robot narrator generates some droll humor at times ("Upon returning home, Eve made a beeline for the bathroom and sealed herself in. She sat in there for 00:56:02 and cried.") At times, the punning goes over-the-top so much that it wears thin. But the silliness of the world makes it all the more fascinating to a reader like me, who loves mutants. However, the book's major weakness is a reliance on the shopworn "Adam & Eve" conceit (that the title makes explicit), considered by many to be one of the biggest cliches of the science fiction genre. Couple that with the Pygmalion plot and you might start to think that the narrative could use a little more cleverness to match the book's imaginative universe. But O'Brien -- whose background, incidentally, is in animation -- is careful not to give plot itself much dramatic weight. He's really just borrowing the structure to play out his imagination and generate a never-ending series of witty barbs at modern culture. And the creativity that's evident everywhere in O'Brien's hilarious satire of consumer culture makes it a terrific read.
Visit evethenovel.com for a battery of animated illustrations of the best of his Creature Comforts and a far better description of the plot than I can muster. (Be sure to click on the "Lick-n-Span" image -- it's what won me over when I first encountered the website). If you're looking for a good laugh, and you enjoy light SF, I think you'll really like this book. It's a wonderful critique of the suburbanite's American dream, shot through the lens of its most hedonistic desires. Available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book editions from the author's website, AuthorHouse.com, or amazon.com.
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Drinking The Devil's Wine
"Poetry," as St. Augustine once said, "is the devil's wine." In other words, it's so damned tempting that after your first sip you'll inevitably want just one more glass -- even at your own peril.
That's how I felt after savoring the various vintages of The Devil's Wine -- a fine trade hardcover poetry collection from Cemetery Dance edited by Tom Piccirilli and illustrated copiously by the notoriously talented artist, Caniglia. Once I opened the cover, I couldn't stop sipping from its pages. This is a book to be treasured and the attention to production quality that CD Publications put into this hardcover is well worth collecting and showing off to friends. In sum, this book treats dark poetry with the respect it deserves, exhibiting the musing (and occasionally softer and playful) side of bestselling and award-winning horror novelists, including such luminaries as Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Peter Straub, Jack Ketchum, Tamara Thorne, Edward Lee, and thirteen others. It's a substantial collection, featuring anywhere from 6 to 10 poems by each contributor, introduced by Piccirilli (the Bram Stoker Award winner in Poetry who also contributes). Each author-poet's contribution is framed by excellent charcoal drawings and chatty introductory remarks, giving the book the feel of about twenty poetry chapbooks in one. For the price -- listed around forty dollars -- this rarity is a steal and it certainly belongs on the bookshelf of any serious horror enthusiast reading today.
Reading the collection, one can't help but sense that this is an important and influential volume. While the poetry itself is something of a mixed bag, the sheer novelty of the collection -- and it's respectful treatment of each poet -- makes you feel like you are holding something very special, to be treasured, because you're getting to see a more personal side of the writers you respect. And in many ways, the book is also a reminder of just how talented these writers really are when it comes to manipulating the English language. The contributions by King alone -- many culled from the days before he was a known author -- are well worth the price of the book, revealing his innate ability to terrify. His lead poem, "The Dark Man," depicts the sheer saturation of evil in everything around us, with hard-hitting supernatural foreboding: "i have...heard the suck of shadows/where a gutted columned house/leeched with vines/speaks to an overhung mushroom sky...i am a dark man." This poem launches the book in a very powerful way because I suspect most readers who haven't read King's poetry before (you can find snippets of it in most of his short fiction collections) will have an eye-opening revelation about this self-professed "balogna fiction" writer's literary side. I see this as a metaphorical response to all critics who might say that horror is artless gutter literature. Throughout the collection, we get to see the genre's most successful wordsmiths reminding us how good they really are, freed from the bindings of conventional narrative to work their literary muscle on poetry, which is perhaps the most difficult craft of writing to master.
The Devil's Wine holds many more revelations than simply disclosing unique facets of the talent of a King or a Straub. Chief among the surprises in this book -- in my view -- are the softer poems penned by horror's most hardcore writers. Edward Lee -- one of the genre's most notoriously disturbing writers who is never afraid to go into the gorezone bearing a machete -- contributes several strong poems exhibiting a range of talent, leaping from what might be called "love poems" to thought experiments on par with what you'd find in today's most profoundly difficult literary journals. Along with some rock solid poems that probe unflinchingly into tough philosophical territories, Brian Hodge contributes lyrics from songs he's put together, revealing the complexity of his musical side. Elizabeth Massie even offers a little comedic verse and a few poems with a YA flair that make you grin devilishly. I was thrilled to study these poems by authors whom I've read and admired for a long time, and there is a LOT to chew on with over 350 pages of poetry between this book's covers.
I suspect most who pick up The Devil's Wine will jump right to the Stephen King section and swallow it whole, before paging to have a little Jack Ketchum as an after-dinner mint. I recommend savoring them all. If you aren't touched by the contributions of Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem or Charles DeLint, you're just not human. The contributions by Peter Crowther and Graham Masterson confirmed my respect for these great writers of dark supernatural fiction. Piccirilli's own poetry in the back of the book attests to why he won the Bram Stoker Award for it in 2000 and why he deserves to edit this massive collection. (And with titles like "Nunzio, Sixty Years Dead, Lying at my Side, Staring" or "How to Perform Heart Surgery with Someone Else's Gaze" you know he's giving us a treat). Nearly all of the poems in the book are satisfying. But I think the greatest thrill I had when reading The Devil's Wine was discovering dark suspense writer Jay Bonansinga's talent for poetry. I've read his short stories and novels (like Oblivion and Sick) before and always thought he was a decent novelist, but Bonansinga's contributions to The Devil's Wine are knockout poems that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the greatest poets working the dark trenches today. Who knew! I credit Piccirilli with making something of a discovery here -- and I want more, because this author is not only a very capable fiction writer, but someone who deserves his own poetry collection right away.
If you've already read this book and this is your first taste of The Devil's Wine, I hope you'll develop a drinking problem, and cultivate a lifelong weakness for the poetic grape and the more artful side of horror's creative personalities. Not just in poetry, but other artforms. Look for Peter Straub's early poetry collections. Or Brian Hodge's music. Or Elizabeth Massie's art. Celebrate the art of the darkness -- for there is far more than just six-dollar paperback novels out there in the field, if you know where to look. The joy of reading this book isn't just peering into the hidden personalities of the famous writers, it lies in exploring the dark side without relying on the familiar maps of popular fiction or the safety nets handed to us by the mass media marketplace. Poems are always thought experiments that don't follow the predictable rules of prose writing, and that only adds to the scariness they can produce.
If there's a flaw to this book, it's that the selections privilege mass market writers to the exclusion of other well-established poets and experimental writers who have been working on the fringes for decades. This collection doesn't bother to toss a few grapes from various countrysides that are out there harvesting the dark provinces already. These, perhaps, are a more rarefied vintage, but worthy of a taste nonetheless. The collection pretends at diversity but doesn't quite provide it. While The Devil's Wine contains well-established science fiction/fantasy poets like Joe Haldeman and Michael Bishop, it almost entirely neglects professional poets who have been writing this stuff successfully for decades. While contributors like Steve Rasnic Tem and Jack Cady in the book represent the more "literary" side of horror writing, the book could have only benefited, I think, from including a few underground, "outlaw," or simply lesser-known poetry writers whose craft is all the more mature and sharpened with practice than some of those who are in this book. Bram Stoker Award-winners in poetry -- like the amazingly deft and well-schooled Bruce Boston or the important African American female voice of Linda Addison -- probably should have been included in the stomping barrel. Where are the graphic surrealist shockers by a Charlee Jacob or the psychological creepers of a John Grey? They're speciously absent and anyone who is already an aficionado of horror poetry will simply have to wonder why. (Would the power of their experienced poetry writing outshine those of these brand names? Would the inclusion of small press writers somehow ostensibly lower the clout of the book? To what degree did commerce and art compete in the editorial decisions at play here?)
The book manages to enormously succeed despite this weakness in variety, and overall, it's okay, I think, that The Devil's Wine pretends to be nothing more than a respectful and charming novelty that gives us a glimpse into the more lyrical side of today's best novelists. I do think this collection could have sacrificed some of its more silly contributions by name writers (there are definitely a few self-indulgent clunkers in here -- mostly bad inside jokes or pun poems that fail miserably) for the sake of giving some very deserving wine-makers a little more attention. An opportunity was also missed here, to help educate the book's audience about the relatively unknown contemporary horror poetry genre and its long history, one that reaches all the way back to Poe, if not even as far back as Beowulf. Even a bibliography of related works or a brief essay about the history of horror poetry would have been a minor step in the right the direction.
Nevertheless, this shouldn't stop anyone from buying this book right away. I hope readers everywhere will not only chug deeply from this generous jug of darkness, but will also be inspired to grab another bottle elsewhere (and another collection of Tom Piccirilli's own poetry would be a great place to start). I also hope that this book -- which is a MUST READ for anyone with a taste for terror -- is such a success that it produces a sequel that will offer more variety to today's most discriminating connoisseurs of the devil's wine.
A full contents listing and ordering information for The Devil's Wine is available at Cemetery Dance Publications. If you're hunting for more rarefied vintages, a similar title worth considering is Cemetery Poets, which is offered at a discount this month to Goreletter e-mail subscribers only.
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Wicked Little Girls
The first anthology from Allegra Press -- Wicked Little Girls, edited by Christina Sng -- is a mixed bag of stories and poems involving female children who are "made of sugar and spikes and everything >not< nice" (as Scott Urban puts it in his introduction). Sng -- a genre poet of repute -- has done a good job selecting a wide array of approaches to the topic. While the production quality is a bit disappointing (especially the bare-boned red cardstock cover, with the words of the title blown up in a large, familiar, blood-dripping horror font), the length is a little short (26 pages), and the story quality is a little unbalanced, there are also some nice gems hiding in the rough of this small press chapbook about darkness lurking where you'd least expect it: in the form of the sweet and innocent girlie.
Welcomingly, half of this book contains the work of female horror writers, and there's a good mix of international authors represented, as well. The horror genre still seems dominated by male voices writing about male preoccupations, and Wicked Little Girls stands as a small press corrective to this hegemony. It dramatizes, in many of its pieces, a turning of the tables and a revolt of the "little girl" against patriarchy and male power. Some stories, like Jamie Rosen's allegory, "Alis Bender's Life Lesson #36," deliver that revolt with humor, with a direct kick to the groin. Others are more literary, exploring the role of storytelling in disempowering the "little girl." Marsheila Rockwell's excellent poem, "Gretel" -- reminiscent of Angela Carter's feminist work in fairy tales -- retells the famous tale of gingerbread house kidnapping in a monologue by Hansel's sister by turning the finger of blame away from the wicked witch and pointing it squarely at Hansel himself: "no wonder father wanted/him gone/it was >his< ungodly hunger/that beggared us...his voracious appetite/that brought the witch's wrath upon us." I also enjoyed Simon Bestwick's sf/horror piece -- "Emily's Song: A Life Cycle in Three Parts" -- which may be the best story in the anthology. It's about a little monster named Emily who takes over the body of the president in a parasitic fashion, leading to grotesque and genuinely surprising ends. Bestwick manages to balance gross-out humor against the story's political allegory in an expert fashion. Jonathan William Hodges' excellent contribution, "Deep in the Gloom of Lights from Rescue Squads" is an extended prose-poem, written in a hypnotic weave of prose that moves in and out of reality in quite a bizarre but eloquent fashion. Indeed, poetry sneaks into the prose where you least expect it in many of the stories in this collection. For example, when I first read Robyn A. Hay's "Scrapbook" I almost read right past the rhyme that recurs in paragraphs like this one -- "'How's the knee, Bea?' Rodney asked his wife quietly" -- even though the over-reliance on adverbs in the dialogue tags made the creative writing teacher in me writhe.
Because the collection's premise is about "wicked little girls" almost every story's ending was telegraphed to some degree: I always already assumed that the little girls of the stories were going to do something wicked or horrible. Perhaps this is why a few of the stories didn't work for me. One might think that this premise is the book's limitation, but with characters ranging from daughters to dollies, and settings from Africa to alien worlds, Wicked Little Girls has enough variety to make it an enjoyable read all the way through, regardless. If you're looking for something on the alternative side, get your copy direct from Allegra Press -- or through the small press distributor Project Pulp -- for about $6 postpaid.
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Conscience by John Skipp
As a writer, I always cringe when I hear other writers give the advice that a book should be "cinematic": that it should be written not only to give the reader the same thrill that they'd get at the movies, but also that it be custom-built to try to sell ancillary rights to a film company in order to rake in the dough. While I do think that most writers wouldn't be able to make a living without film option income, I often think that fiction is supposed to be fiction first. In fact, some of the best books in the world are those that can ONLY be books, because they really make the most out of the form -- and it shouldn't come as a surprise that the film adaptation usually sucks skunkwater.
And then I read an exception to the rule and I bite my tongue.
John Skipp's latest book, Conscience, is just such a book. The back cover claims it was "designed to be read in one sitting -- in roughly the time it takes to watch a feature film" -- and it succeeds at delivering its nightmare with the immediacy of a bullet to the brain. Conscience -- a dark crime story about a vicious killer who discovers his conscience during a massacre -- is an excellent novella. When I put it down, I felt breathless and more than a little astounded at what he'd managed to pull off. Its pace reminded me a little bit of Douglas Winter's novel, Run -- a great suspense fiction that experiments with pace and reads like a car chase. But Conscience accomplishes this while seated firmly behind the driver's seat that is the mind of a killer, careening toward his destiny. As I read Conscience, I was impressed by Skipp's talent at writing psychological fiction that doesn't get mired down in moody explorations of the mind, but rather moves rapidly toward its inevitable conclusion. Even though the story is loaded with interior monologue and moments of psychological soul-searching that would threaten to bog down any other book, Skipp's lean prose, sharp style, and quick rhythm makes this story gallop along at the breakneck pace of Hollywood cinema. And it drips with the noirish charm of a Quentin Tarantino film, as the narrator muses over love, life, and all that corrupts it... even while he's blasting someone's head off with a shotgun.
Perhaps it's not fair to compare Skipp to Q. Although this he is definitely a writer channelling the culture of Hollywood and Los Angeles, Skipp's crime writing reflects the deep introspection and wit of Jim Thompson's twisted noir -- on several shots of espresso. This book -- while fast-paced -- isn't as hyperactive and self-referential as a Tarantino film; though it races, it is instead powered by a strongly crafted voice And it's only appropriate, I think, that Skipp -- a progenitor of the "splatterpunk" movement when he collaborated with Craig Spector a decade ago on bestselling books like The Light at the End or The Scream -- rediscovers his own voice in the mind of a madman.
In his introduction to the story, Skipp calls this a sort of antithesis to the "Big Fat Contemporary Novel" -- but the book as a whole is very thick indeed. Conscience is, in fact, just one novella in a collection of works that weighs in at 321 pages long. If I had to come up with one word for the book, I'd call it "generous"! It features some great historical documents from Skipp's writing career, all of which -- bound together -- really give you a strong sense of what makes this writer unique. The book features six short stories (two of them short-shorts) and a full-length screenplay (which is much longer than Conscience itself!) for a story called Johnny Death. The stories made me nostalgic (three were reprints from books I'd read before, like the brutal tale, "Film at Eleven" which appeared in David J. Schow's anthology, Silver Scream in 1988), but they stand up to re-reading, especially from the context of this book, which allows you to contrast his early entries into brutality against his writing today. I also enjoyed the inclusion of two rare short-shorts -- "A Quickee" and "Welcome to Here." The screenplay, Johnny Death, while very different than Conscience, is still a great study in how to write a bizarre film with a big budget feel. Skipp's imagination is wild; he really knows how to entertain. And the introductions to all of the pieces in this book give readers a welcome insight into the ingenious mind of John Skipp. You'll get remarks on the writing process, the patterns in his work that define him as an independent writer, and reflections on the Skipp and Spector days and the events that led to their creative separation.
What I learned from reading this book was not only that cinematic writing can succeed, but that John Skipp has >always< been a writer with a conscience, even in his most splattery of gore fiction. He's a writer of great insight and honesty -- what makes him different today, I think, could very well be a more developed sense of humility in his fiction. As he says at one point in the book, "I just want a better world. That's all. And I'd like to point out that we ain't there yet." I think this simple sentiment lies behind a lot of what Skipp writes.
Friendly Firewalk Press -- Skipp's own imprint -- makes Conscience available as a trade paperback. The quality of the book is good and you really do get a trove of Skipp material for the $19.99 price. It's available through amazon.com or John Skipp's home page. (His "Eats" project -- something of a custom-built homage to Wacky Packages -- made the Goreletter's "Weird Links of the Month" last issue; if you like that, you might like his weblog, called "The Hard Way," too).
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If you're looking for some light -- yet dark and twisted -- reading, then you'll enjoy Denise Dietz' quirky erotic horror-comedy, Fifty Cents for Your Soul (Delphi Books, Apr 2002). Dietz draws her inspiration from her sister, Eileen Dietz -- Linda Blair's "demon double" from The Exorcist -- to put together this hilarious black comedy about an actress who gets cast in a schlocky horror film, Forever Asmodeus, only to find herself possessed by a lusty and murderous demon who has dreams of stardom all its own.
The play with the demon double in this book is genuinely fun, and there's a lot of raunchy laughs in this book, but what really makes this novel a page-turner is Dietz's penchant for snappy one-liners and witty turns of phrase. She's not afraid to go over-the-top -- as in the opening line ("The woman who straddled Victor Madison had hiccups.") -- or to drop a witty metaphor in passing like it was easy ("My mother, of course, thinks my logic is as twisted as a French cruller.") Dietz pulls this off by telling the story through the first person perspective of Frannie Rosen -- a narrator whose voice sounds something like a young Bette Midler if she'd been cast in an episode of Sex in the City directed by Tim Burton. At one point, for example, Frannie witnesses a murder and notes two things: one, that blood is brown when it coagulates, and, two, that "In the Rosen household, blood never has time to turn a rusty brown. Immediately, if not sooner, it's soaked in white vinegar, club soada, and/or salt water." And so she tells the cops to try that little household hint. But sometimes the joking gets downright ludicrous. Take, for example, Frannie's description of the demon:
"Call it a doppleganger, call it a dybbuk, call it a nudist who stuffs beetles inside its belly without swallowing. I only knew that if a tree fell in the forest and hit a mime, no one would hear (or care), but if it hit my demon, the echo of its eerie screech would reverberate left and right, up and down, from the Bronx Zoo to Bloomingdales..."
Yes, the demon eats beetles by shoving them directly into its flesh -- and that's pretty neat when Dietz depicts it. But Frannie's voice allows her to pull a mime joke out of the blue where others would be drop dead serious. The humor refuses to take a back seat to the horror. When Frannie gets serious, it's only when the demon possesses her -- in dream visions akin to rape fantasies -- that dramatize her seduction into the dark side. Her demon is indeed quite randy, and the sex jokes are frequent. But the light-hearted approach to the horror is what kept me turning the pages, waiting for the next humorous jab, whether zinger or groaner. Die-hard horror fans be warned: Dietz is predominantly a writer of romantic suspense novels, not supernatural horror, but in my opinion this only enhances the creative approach she brings to the genre, making this one of the quirkiest "demon lover" books I've ever read. Granted, I haven't read a lot of them. But as a fan of The Exorcist, I found Fifty Cents for Your Soul worth far more than two bits.
Denise Dietz. Fifty Cents for Your Soul. ISBN 0966339754. 283 pp. Hardcover. Delphi Books, April 2002. $22.95. Delphi Books, POB 6435, Lee's Summit, MO 64064.
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If you like getting your fiction in tiny doses, then you'll enjoy the book, Cigar Box Faust and Other Miniatures, by multi-award winning science fiction writer Michael Swanwick. If you're a science fiction fan with a taste for humor, you'll really adore it. With this fine collection of microfiction, Swanwick proves the writer's dictum that "less is more." Even better than the mini-stories that are routinely posted for free on the author's "Periodic Table of Science Fiction" at SciFi.com, the seventy or so hypershort stories in this book (most under three paragraphs) are a testament to Swanwick's imaginative genius. Clocking in at less than 100 pages, the book is indeed a collection of "miniatures" that are a joy to savor. Though mostly aimed at fans of science fiction, readers of horror and literary experimentalism will also enjoy sampling the creative morsels in this book quite a bit.
Swanwick structures Cigar Box Faust by organizing the many short pieces into various thematic clusters, logical series, or variations on a theme -- patterns he likely used to generate the microscopic tales themselves. The "whimsies" he wrote while strolling through a Picasso exhibit appear here as a series of "Eleven Still-Lifes" which have Picasso doing nutty things like making cubist monsters or serving up butchered alien heads at a dinner table. Using the alphabet to launch a series of 26 musings, he generates "An Abecedary of the Imagination" which features such mini-horror pieces as "J is for Jack" (in which Jack the Ripper somehow manages to get the moral upper hand) and "L is for Lucky Strikes" (the brand of cigarettes which just so happen to be the most sought after commodity in hell). Other clusters in the book have more of a traditional SF focus: there's a series of tales enumerating the bodies in the solar system ("Archaic Planets"), a short-short litany of literary criticism on Phillip K. Dick ("Eight Takes on Kindred Themes"), and parodic exchanges with the editors of Asimov's and Fantasy & Science Fiction magazines ("Letters to the Editor" and "The Madness of Gordon Van Gelder"). These latter two speak to the book's primary weakness -- the reliance on 'in jokes' and allusions to SF culture that only die hard Swanwick fans and other SF writers will be able to fully appreciate. Nonetheless, this book is a gift to his fans, so it's entirely appropriate. Swanwick keeps his humor and imagination in the foreground, and the amount of fun that this author is having with the form is contagious enough to keep the miniatures from descending into trivial minutia.
Indeed, the series of powerful short-shorts called "Writing in My Sleep" more than makes up for any self-indulgency in the collection. Here Swanwick literally transcribes his "dreamwork"...not in the way you might jot in a dream journal, but in the way a writer might actually compose a manuscript while dreaming. Here he actually wrote those manuscripts down, remaining faithful to the work of his unconscious. And Swanwick's unconscious writes very good flash fiction. My favorite in the series is a six-paragraph story called "Critics," in which he writes of a planet where leeches literally parasite writers and artists to death in a sycophantic hell which refers none too subtly back to its title.
The book's titular story, "Cigar Box Faust," is also a work of pure genius. It's a revision of the famous Goethe drama -- written as though it were an instruction manual for a little mini-reenactment of "Faust" in a poor man's puppet theater, using a cigar, a book of matches, and so forth. (Mephistopheles is the cigar cutter, of course). It's the script of a cute performance that Swanwick has actually put on at late night convention parties. There are similar experiments in this book -- from the series of "Brief Essays" -- which are humorous and philosophical musings (in one of them, Swanwick claims to have been the first writer to find a rhyme for "Orange" that actually fits into a poem; in another, he roasts a bevy of speculative fiction writers by mixing their names with their own famous book titles, like "The Grotesque Patrick McGrath" and "The Man Who Melted Jack Dann"). Altogether, Cigar Box Faust is ingeniously witty, testifying to both the brilliance of its creator and the power of his brevity. Pardon the cliche, but these miniatures -- just like the best candies -- are short and sweet. Recommended reading, whether in tiny bites or in one big gulp.
Cigar Box Faust and Other Miniatures by Michael Swanwick. Tachyon Publications. Trade paperback. Color Cover by Freddie Baer. 94 pp. ISBN 1-892391-07-4. $14.95. http://www.tachyonpublications.com
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Fear in a Handful of Dust
If you were somehow dissatisfied by Stephen King's book, On Writing, you might want to try to hunt down a hardcover memoir by a horror author named Gary A. Braunbeck, published last May by Wildside Press. The book, Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life, is everything On Writing should have been. One part memoir, one part writing workshop and one part film class, Braunbeck's book may be more reminiscent of King's study of the genre, Dance Macabre, than it is of On Writing, because it is more interested in the genre of fear than in the craft of writing itself. But what makes Braunbeck's book succeed is the way he unflinchingly explores the relationship between genre texts and his own approach to both writing and the world -- giving us insight into his horror "aesthetic" and elaborating on why reading in this genre means so much more than sticking your hand into goopy buckets of broken bone and blood.
Like so many writers in the genre today, the specter of Stephen King haunts Gary A. Braunbeck. In fact, the clever opening chapter of Fear is a film script that depicts a writer being chided by a copy of King's books on a nearby shelf, books which talk and dance and tease him for repeating what King has already done. It's an hilarious allegory for the contemporary horror writer's struggle for his own voice under the massive influence of King. It's just plain funny -- like a Disney film gone horribly wrong. At the same time it allows us to not only empathize with the writer's plight but also bracket off King's similar book endeavors while we read ahead (and Braunbeck will go on later to deconstruct the films made out of King's books, among other things). I think what makes this opening chapter work so well is that it serves as a great example of how Braunbeck can process personal anxieties into good fiction. That's the grand lesson of this book and it's one worth paying attention to if you're a writer on the dark side. Reading this book made me rethink why I was so drawn to the genre as a young person. People assume that these texts corrupt the youth, but the truth is much more complicated than that: they give order to the chaos, they give a name to nameless fears, they empower us to confront nastiness, and they do so much more. In Fear in a Handful of Dust, we learn about this by tracing how horror fiction and film gave Braunbeck a way of understanding and managing the horrors and anxieties of his everyday life. His life experience, it turns out, has many lessons to teach.
Though Braunbeck can certainly be funny, the book is far more serious than its humorous opening chapter suggests. Fear in a Handful of Dust is an earnest -- if at times, moody -- exploration of the dark side, and this level of seriousness is what makes Fear more satisfying for horror fans than King's On Writing. Braunbeck confesses openly, but avoids the self-absorbed blathering of many other memoirists. He is searching for the hot nugget of truth buried inside the bologna like the best of them. At the same time, he celebrates the genre as a sort of personal therapy and grand social ritual. He writes like a teacher, discussing films and books which had a profound influence on his aesthetic, as he builds a case for why we should take horror seriously. His love for well-crafted writing is contagious. The chapter on "Opening Lines" and other matters of writing style ought to be required reading in any horror writing course. Braunbeck celebrates the craftsmanship of great genre writers -- especially highlighting the work of contemporaries like Jack Ketchum or Richard Laymon -- in order to illuminate what makes work of dread a piece of literature. The analysis of his own stories and novels is equally compelling, giving fans of Braunbeck a lot of substantial meat to chew on.
One thing that made this book unique, I felt, was the close analysis of genre art films. Reading Fear made me want to run right out to the video store and spend more time with some classics. Braunbeck's film analyses are really smart, but he tends to focus on secondary films by American directors that aren't as accessible as most horror blockbusters -- genre-bending films that pushed the envelope of cinema and took risks that weren't always popular. So you might need to do a little extra research to pass Braunbeck's class in Horror, so to speak, if you didn't take the Film History prerequisite. But Braunbeck's work is enlightening. He explains, for example, why Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses is "ingenious garbage" and why some almost forgotten films like Friedkin's Sorcerer or Polanski's The Tenant really deserve to be studied more closely. His lengthy discussion of John Frankenheimer's work (especially the film, Seconds) gave me a far better appreciation for this director than I already harbored and Braunbeck's treatment of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia made me want to host a Sam Peckinpah Video Marathon.
Even more compelling than the "lessons" in the book are the shocking autobiographical entries that Braunbeck crafts with an unflinching and dramatic flair. The tale of his alcoholic father's breakdown one morning -- featuring a loaded weapon -- is a painful look back at an episode in Braunbeck's life that will amaze you with its gut-wrenching honesty. The breakdown and recovery that close out this book will touch you. I won't give anything away, except to say that the real world horrors that Braunbeck explores are scarier than a lot of the fiction I've read so far this year. And such excursions into memory explain Braunbeck's approach to horror as a serious avenue into understanding the human condition. This is why I say Braunbeck's writing is "earnest": you never get the sense he's pulling your leg. Even when he's treating something lightly, he's got a serious purpose. And I think that's what I respect most about Braunbeck's writing: his emotional honesty. This is one of the most interesting and intense memoirs by a genre writer that I know of. I recommend it to writers and horror fans alike.
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Dark Grey: The Body's Last Days
Is it even possible that you've never read the prolific poet named John Grey?
Grey, a long-standing award-winning speculative poet whose writing has appeared in virtually every quality horror magazine I can think of, is someone I've idolized for years. He's one of the few writers of poetry that I would call a "master" of horror. I'm not sure if it's because I admire his no-nonsense, almost minimalist, approach to free verse or simply because his dark imagination always surprises me with a fresh idea. His sense of irony is profound and deep. Whatever it is, he's got one of the most macabre minds in the business and it's a shame he hasn't received the acclaim he really deserves. John Grey is what you would get if you combined Robert Frost with Edgar Allan Poe: he writes plain-speaking, accessible poems that always -- always -- surprise. Grey can easily catch you off-guard with a surprise twist ending that makes you rethink everything you took for granted in the lines that precede it. This can add a layer of depth to the poem or simply drop you down a trap door into nightmare. Or sometimes he'll just ring a phrase so resoundingly "right" that it jolts you like an electroshock helmet juicing up on your temples. In either case, his poetry always misleads and misdirects and murders you with its final lines. It's the sort of stuff with irony that cuts so sharp that makes me blurt out a gasp or a laugh. And I always shake my head and say to myself, "Damn, he's good!"
"The Body's Last Days" -- John Grey's 2003 mini-chapbook (4" x 5-1/2" pocket-sized, 32 page booklet) from Richard Geyer, Publisher, is Grey at his least cerebral and most physical. This book is composed mostly of previously published horror poems about death, mutilation, and decomposition that reveal Grey at his most ferocious and visceral. I've been reading this poet for years and this collection really strikes me as his least subtle, most horrifying, body of work.
The title poem, "The Body's Last Days," is deceptively simple joke that actually suggests much more than what's on the surface. The poem describes just what it suggests, relating what the body experiences as it rots, "told," as it were, from the viewpoint of a corpse decomposing in a coffin. Its rotting narrator seems almost hilariously fixated on the worms that feast on him, as you can tell from the opening lines:
Worms, then voices, then more worms,
then the rhythmic thump of rain,
and, of course, a veritable
worm invasion and some wind through
the pear trees, and then all
the worms these worms know
The rapid and deceptively cavalier return to the worms again and again throughout the poem seems glib and silly, but it drives home the horrific notion that there's really nothing the narrator can do about it and that it's really all that matters because of the recurring trauma. And though one might come to the conclusion that the narrator is somehow fixated on these worms, the poem is all about how the worms are fixated on the narrator.
In another poem, "Last Laugh," Grey catalogues a imaginatively original battery of body parts in stanzas that read like haiku -- from "two dismembered lips/like flattened pink slugs" to "insides of a throat/torn out/stretched like saran rap/around a busted jaw" only to end with the clincher: "what a sense of humor/looks like dead." This strange poem is an example of what makes Grey so talented -- a whole revenge plot is carefully placed "off stage" in the implications of the title and the last line, which allows the images to confront us with revolting horror first and inviting us to fill in the blanks with "poetic justice" via our own imaginations.
Other poems in the collection inject new life into the typical tropes of the dead: haunted houses, cannibals, rats, suicide, torture...it's all here. There's so much horror packed into this tiny little book; I think any horror fan would love to find it festering in his or her stocking this Xmas. To get these twenty-seven chilling poems -- including the Rhysling Award winning poem, "Explaining Frankenstein to his Mother" -- send just $3 to Richard Geyer, Publisher, 1338 West Maumee, Idlewilde Manor #136, Adrian, MI 49221. Or review the following website for more information:
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Pitchblende: Songs of Flesh, Bone, Blood
Pitchblende: Songs of Flesh, Bone, Blood -- a terrific collection of the most horrific verse by multi-award winning poet Bruce Boston -- is being published by Dark Regions Press. I wrote the introduction to this book and essentially edited it, so my review is quite biased. I'm excited about the book, obviously, but everyone should be. Boston is a living legend of genre poetry and this book is a great testament to his dark side.
When editing this collection, I had the unique opportunity to read through many of Boston's dark poems over the past decade, select the best of them for this book and then arrange the contents. Pitchblende present a "blend" of Boston's dark material, reflecting the breadth of his talent in the horror genre and his remarkable range. Pitchblende reveals Boston's abilities, from playing with the horror genre's overt icons (like the vampiric seduction in "The Prince Comes in Velvet") to musing expressionistically about death (as in the moody pallor of "In Far Pale Clarity"). In the mix is some surrealist prose poems ("Surreal Domestic"), some formal lyrical verse ("Down in Your Bones Only You Alone Know"), some epic-length projects ("Pavane for a Cyber-Princess"), and some metafiction experiments ("Two Nightstands Attacking a Cello").
Although I had a hand in compiling this book, Boston's work stands tall on its own legs and every "song of flesh, bone, and blood" in here hits a perfectly dark pitch. Pitchblende is a great testament to one of the horror genre's most literate wordsmiths. I'd read these poems again recently and all stand up to multiple re-readings. That's a sign of genius at work. I admire Boston a great deal and I recommend this book highly. At just $9.95, this trade paperback is something of a steal.
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I received my contributor's copy of a chapbook called Unspeakable Limericks last week, and I enjoyed it so much I thought I'd pass word along here. The editors -- Tyree Campbell and L.A. Story Houry -- really take this humorous form of poetry seriously, as their introduction to the book attests (and as I know from experience, as they painstakingly worked with me to edit my own poem in the book, "Crazy Biology," to perfection). Campbell and Houry mean serious business with this silly form, and the results are unanimously good: the limericks are hilarious and masterful. The "unspeakable" title is a bit of a misnomer -- you're destined to find yourself reading the poems aloud to friends, marveling over their wit.
Though not all are as dirty, bawdy, naughty or grotesque as its "unspeakable" title might suggest, every poem has that sideways grin you expect from a good limerick. Most have the formal meter and punch-line timing you'd expect, while others push the boundaries of the pattern a little bit, keeping the book from falling into a rut of mind-numbing redundancy. But it's not as bizarre as it advertises and I would rate the book PG-13 if it were a film. But that rating does not damn this book; in fact, I think Unspeakable Limericks is doing many things right, including holding back from being too excessive with sex and violence.
One of the distinguishing features of the collection is the genre focus, as each poem falls within the speculative genres of science fiction, fantasy, or horror. This makes the collection feel like collegial light fun. The collection contains 37 poems and includes some familiar names in the genre press. Bruce Boston contributes some of the most scientific sounding limericks ("a google decided to engage in sex/while all of its aughts were still convex..."); while Marcie Tentchoff delivers high fantasy at its most notoriously inventive ("once boastfully proud of his scars/the elf-hunting orc chief Thr'xgar..."); and Alice Henderson tosses in some very strong genre blends that are truly horrific ("I clawed at the airlock in vain/as the larvae crawled into my brain..."). Other familiar poets include Cathy Buburuz, Stephen D. Rogers, Ann K. Schwader, Shannon Riley, P. Andrew Miller, Terrie Relf, Lee Clarke Zumpe, Kevin Hayes, and many more.
The book is well arranged and filled with enough variety of form and genre to sustain a straight read all the way through. Although I don't think the cover matches the content, the production value is pretty strong for a chapbook of this ilk. There are many fantastic illustrations by Teri Santitoro (some in color!) both inside and out, and the book features fine paper interiors. Limericks are a form you either love or hate, but I think this 27 page book -- an homage to Isaac Asimov's "Lecherous Limericks" -- will both charm and satisfy you, whether you're a fan of poetry or not. Available for $9 from Sam's Dot Publishing:
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Headhunter, by Tim Curran, is the first
chapbook published by Dark Animus
Press and it's quite an impressive
debut. The story -- about an encounter
with evil in the deepest jungles of
Vietnam -- is a knockout war fable and
a very satisfying tale of horror,
combining old school supernaturalism
with modern day shock. The cover art
by Les Peterson is simply gorgeous
(and he offers copious interior illos to
accompany the story). The bonus short
story in the back of the book -- "Friday
Night Freak Show" -- illustrated this
time by GW Thomas -- is a lot of dark
fun, providing a well-earned comic
relief from the unflinching horror of the
novella in the book proper.
Tim Curran is fairly new on the horror
scene, but his work is appearing
everywhere in the small press these
days and everything I've read by him
has been genuinely good. If you
haven't read him yet, and you're
looking for a good war story, pick up
Headhunter and you won't be
Headhunter is probably as much about
a mythic "devil that hunts heads" as it
is about the horror of the Vietnam
experience. And for all its spookiness,
every sentence in this book drips with
dark realism. The story rings so true to
'Nam and yet it's a fantasy story about
the dreams and nightmares of the
grunt soldier cast into the jungle. From
its grim "reapers" of green facepaint to
the Vietnamese legends and ghost
stories, this book jumps right into the
battlefield of fear.
Curran knows how to write
atmosphere. Headhunter will
decapitate you with its breathless
power. Tim Curran's metaphors zing
like bullets past a Kevlar helmet -- they
come out of nowhere and almost take
your head off. His characters sound
like they've been there, dug into the
muck of a war that nobody wanted. If
you only know Vietnam from the
history books, this novella will scar you
and I don't think you'll ever look at that
war -- or any conflict -- the same way
Because of its unforgettable brutality,
this is not an easy novella to read, but
that's also precisely why you must read
it. It'll traumatize you and haunt you
long after you've put it down.
Headhunter is an important addition to
the literature of the Vietnam war -- and
certainly to the horror genre. Tim
Curran will win a lot of fans with this
one. Headless, I now count myself
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