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Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: Devil of Echo Lake

During this year's 31 Days of horror, Douglass Wynne, the 2012 1st Place winner of Journal Stone's Horror Fiction contest joined me here on the blog.

I did not have time to post my review of his debut novel, The Devil of Echo Lake until now, but I assure you all, it will be worth the wait.

Billy has had 2 successful records and is about to record his third, the one that will make him go from popular, to legendary, but he is not sure how he got there. Using the well known Robert Johnston selling his soul at the crossroads to become a blues legend myth as a starting point, Wynne has Billy question whether or not he has unwittingly sold his soul to the Devil by hooking up with his record producer Trevor Rail. Or is he just too strung out to know the difference between what is really happening and what his brain is being paranoid about?
Trevor is dark and menacing. He could easily be the Devil here on Earth in the 21st Century, but he could also just be very good at his cut throat job.

Right now though, Billy has more pressing problems.  Trevor has booked him to spend the next 2 months recording at Echo Lake in an old church turned studio in a secluded part of upstate, NY (Sleepy Hollow flashbacks anyone?).  The bulk of the novel takes place during these 2 terrifying months as the record is recorded but people are also mysterious dying in violent, tragic, "accidents."

Point of view jumps around frequently.  This is a common tactic in horror these days.  It really enhances the anxiety and dread as the reader is sent around to see everyone's feelings, thoughts, and motives.  It helps to sustain the unsettling atmosphere even in moments of seeming calm.

There are some great lines here too, like this one from the middle of the book:
"What Kevin Brickhouse saw next, he would not understand for the rest of his life, which was now the length of a song." (94-95 of the ARC)
Talk about menacing.  But it is also succinct.  This is some very good horror writing, and in a debut novel.  Good things will come from Wynne in the future. I am excited to see what his dark mind dreams up next.

One of the other strong points of the writing here is how Wynne plays off of the isolated church and the forest it is surrounded by.  There are shadows everywhere.  Some are just natural, but others are definitely not of this world. He draws out the fine line between reality and supernatural perfectly, stringing both the reader and Billy Moon along until neither of us knows which way is up.
This is a story where things go from bad to worse to terrifying. The situation in Echo Lake has a resolved ending, but the fate of Billy Moon himself is left open. Some reviewers have mentioned that the ending is not really horror, more fantasy, but I disagree. I did not feel as if it is as resolved as these people seem to think especially since the entire book has been created to make us question whether what we see is the whole truth.  You can decide for yourself though.

This is a very good horror novel with a demonic possession theme.  The characters are well developed, but it is the sense of dread and unease that hangs over the novel from the first line ["Billy Moon didn't know exactly when he had sold his soul."] to the last lines.  If you are also a  fan of devil themed horror, ancient evil horror, or the extreme isolated setting, you should read this novel.  It is a solid example of those subgenres.
On a side appeal note, there is a lot of detail about being in a band, writing songs, and making a record here.  People who are in bands or just love rock music will find much to enjoy here.

Three Words That Describe This Book: dread, musicians, selling soul to devil

Readalikes:  The first book I though of when reading The Devil of Echo Lake was Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, but mostly for the rock musician angle.

In terms of the writing style (shifting narrators), oppressive sense of dread, the east-coast rural wooded setting [with the evils lurking in the woods], and well developed characters Wynne's novel is reminiscent of another amazing debut, Ghost-Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry.  Click here for a full review.

Finally, the entire what is real, what is not tug of war described above reminded me of another book I really enjoyed, Ghost Radio by Leopoldo Gout.  I really enjoyed that book, especially in audio.

**Full disclosure, I received a free ARC of this novel for review

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: Death Warmed Over--Dan Shamble, Zombie PI

Back in October, I read the first novel in the brand new comic horror series following zombie detective Dan Shamble, Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. Anderson.

Anderson is a best selling author of SF, mostly as part of shared worlds like Star Wars and Dune, and comic horror.  Click here for more.  So a new original series by Anderson piqued my interest, and then I read this plot summary from the publisher:
Ever since the Big Uneasy unleashed vampires, werewolves, and other undead denizens on the world, it’s been hell being a detective — especially for zombie P.I. Dan Chambeaux. Taking on the creepiest of cases in the Unnatural Quarter with a human lawyer for a partner and a ghost for a girlfriend, Chambeaux redefines “dead on arrival.” But just because he was murdered doesn’t mean he’d leave his clients in the lurch. Besides, zombies are so good at lurching. Now he’s back from the dead and back in business — with a caseload that’s downright unnatural. A resurrected mummy is suing the museum that put him on display. Two witches, victims of a curse gone terribly wrong, seek restitution from a publisher for not using “spell check” on its magical tomes. And he’s got to figure out a very personal question — Who killed him? For Dan Chambeaux, it’s all in a day’s work. (Still, does everybody have to call him “Shamble”?) Funny, fresh, and irresistible, this cadaverous caper puts the P.I. in R.I.P…. with a vengeance.
Now tell me how I could not immediately order this book?

The set up of the story tells you quite a bit about whether or not you would like this story.  Let me share a few details about the appeal though.

Death Warmed Over is first and foremost a noir, hardboiled PI novel.  Yes it is filled with the undead, but the tone, style, and frame is most firmly rooted in the work of the classic PI story-- think Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.  These are stories of loners, slightly outside the bounds of normal society, who are always on the side of justice but don't always follow the rules as they solve the case.  There are also usually femme fatales who jeopardize the PI.  All of this holds true for Chambeaux.

If you love zombies but do not like hardboiled mystery novels, DO NOT READ this novel.  It is more tongue-in-cheek about the mystery genre than the horror genre.

That being said, the world Anderson creates is well fleshed out.  Through Dan, we are introduced to how the world works now that the dead can rise.  One of the details I liked is that if you were murdered you have a much higher probability of coming back as a zombie or ghost.  This keeps Chambeaux quite busy with cases to solve and his own murderer to find.  As good a job as Anderson does here though, don't read this book if you are not willing to buy into the world he has created.

The characters are a mix of well developed and comic relief.  Anderson gives meat to Dan, his human lawyer partner, and his ghost girl friend as well as a few other key characters.  And, it is important to point out that even though the book is full of amusing, stock, undead characters, they are all used in surprising ways.  You think you know what the vampire is going to do or how the zombie is going to react, but in Anderson's crazy satire, you are probably wrong. As a fan of horror, I appreciated the way he honored the tropes but also injected something new and unpredictable.

And yes, the entire book is told with tongue placed firmly in cheek.  It is a satire of both horror and mystery, but it is also a statement on human nature (and how it doesn't change much one you are not human anymore).  It is about greed and corruption, but love and justice too.  There were moments when you are caught up in the seriousness of the story and then all of the sudden you are laughing out loud.

Overall I had fun with this novel.  It had enough detail and twists in the mystery to keep me reading, the world was developed enough for me, and the characters were interesting.  That being said, by the end I was growing tired of the "wink-wink" jokes and just wanted to find out who dunnit.  As always happens with me and comic horror, I had fun to a point and then I was ready to move on.

The next Dan Shamble book comes out at the end of December.

Three Words to Describe This Book: hardboiled, undead, comic

Readalikes: This is the perfect series for people who like the humor and world building in the Sookie Stackhouse series.  With both series I love the set-up, the characters, and the humor, but I have enough before the individual novels end. I like these kind of stories in small bits and pieces spaced out over time.

Don't forget what I said above about Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  These are also excellent readalike options.

If you like the tone of Death Warmed Over you should also check out the various Blood Lite anthologies that Anderson has edited.

Also, click here to see a few of my other comic horror suggestions.

Finally, I am not sure why but the story reminded me of the Chew graphic novels.  Click here for details.  The Chew world is much more serious, but still has black humor and satire of Shamble's world.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Demise of Horror...NOT

While I am still catching up on everything else I ignored in my life in October, I saw this intersting commentary by Rose Fox, the SF/FSY/H editor at PW.  She is commenting on a piece in the Guardian

Click through to join the conversation.

Coming here next week...the return of reviews.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Me on WPR yesterday

Here is the link of my appearance on the Joy Cardin show yesterday.  I am not until the last 10 minutes, but the entire hour was dedicated to Halloween.

31 Days of Horror: Day 32? A Not Quite Horror Post Script

John Skipp is a legend in the world of horror.  Back in the 1980s he helped to found the graphic, frenetic splatterpunk style of the genre.  But in the 21st century, he has made his name as a collector of stories old and new.

Specifically, he has been working with Black Dog to edit a line of anthologies.  His previous ones were on Demons, Zombies, and Werewolves-- all traditional, otherworldly horror monsters.

This time he keeps the scary coming, but it is the human monster he is concerning himself with.  Like the other books in the series, in Psychos, Skipp gathers stories by classic authors all the way up through brand new stories.  He also adds essays about the appeal of the monsters in his collection.

As a group, these collections are a very good choice for public libraries.  The essays explain to librarians and readers why these monsters continue to entrance readers, while the stories present a cannon for the topic.  There are so many great older stories that get lost over time, but in these collections they continue to live and give readers the scares they are looking for.  Having them paired with newer stories is a testament to the enduring power of the scary tale.

After I take some time off after this grueling month, I will be back with a review of Psychos as well as 2 more horror novels I read this month, but left out of the 31 Days marathon in favor of allowing you to hear from more authors.

But until then, here is Skipp writing an open letter to us librarians asking us to keep anthologies on the shelves.



 by John Skipp

Dear Librarians --

THANK YOU SO MUCH! Because you’ve devoted your lives to it, you probably have an inkling as to how important it is.

But seriously? YOU HAVE NO IDEA!

Evidently, I was born to love books, too.

According to my older sister Linda, I memorized them before I could actually read them, telling my mom and sisters what was on the next page before they even turned it, because they’d read it to me the day before, and I’d hung on every word.

The first and greatest books I remember actually reading myself -- deciphering and internalizing those little black hieroglyphs -- were all by Dr. Seuss. Fantastic stories, with fantastic pictures, and wordplay that taught me the invaluable truth that words and ideas are fun to play with. A lesson I have stuck with ever since.

The ones that stuck with me hardest -- and have persisted, to this day -- were Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories and The Sneetches and Other Stories.

Without a doubt, the words and Other Stories were part of what made those books most memorable to me.

Because it wasn’t just how great it was to watch Yertle’s fall from power, lording it over all those turtles he stacked beneath him just to be all high and mighty. And it wasn’t just about whether it was better to be a Star-Bellied Sneetch or a Sneetch with no stars upon thars, and how stupid that whole status conflict was.

It was also the fact that there were all these other great stories, sitting right there, for me to read. IN ONE BOOK! There was the story of the haunted pants, with no one inside ‘em, who turned out to be just as scared as you. There was the story of the north-going Zax and the south-going Zax,
who had a whole world to move around in, but refused to get out of each other’s way. There was ‘‘The Big Brag’’. There was ‘‘Too Many Daves’’. It was crazy, how many stories he had!

It was a natural leap to Edgar Allan Poe, who in one book -- Tales of Mystery and Imagination -- managed to tell me dozens of astonishing stories, each one wilder and more haunting than the last.

So now I’d found two authors I dearly loved.

And that was where anthologies came in.

Living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at nine years old in 1966, I had a choice of the books in my school’s well-stocked library, the U.S. Embassy’s commissary, and the more-than-occasional English-language books hanging from clips on sidewalk stands. This is how I stumbled across the British publishers Pan and Fontana, who were both putting out their own takes on what they regarded as the Greatest Horror Stories.

And then there was Alfred Hitchcock, whose films I’d never seen. But boy, did that guy know how to pick ‘em! He’d walk in with a droll, funny intro, and then unleash a dozen crazed tales or more. My favorite was Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do On TV, which first introduced me to the provocative notion that there were stories other people didn’t want you to hear.

Between Pan, Fontana, and Sir Alfred himself, I was introduced to the early cream of the dark literary crop. What we refer to as the classics. It was my formal introduction to the genre. And it utterly changed my life.

And this was the thing: suddenly, I was meeting waves of writers through their stories. The slow nightmare unearthliness of M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The wry creepiness of Saki, John Collier, Joan Aiken, and Roald Dahl. The more muscular dread of early Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Anthony Boucher.

So many great writers. So many incredible stories. Such a universe, opening wide.

All seemingly aimed directly at me.

Now let’s fast-forward more than 40-some years. And suddenly, I’m the guy who gets to share stories.

Have you ever made a mix CD for someone you love, where you sat down with all of your favorite songs and assembled a playlist that rocked and flowed, taking your intended on a guided trip down a path paved with nothing but astonishing gems from all up and down the spectrum, in the hope that they’ll be as blown away as you are, and be rendered aglow because they know that you made it just for them?

That’s pretty much how I look at editing anthologies.

In so many ways, short stories are like songs. They step up, immediately lay down a mood and a rhythm and a voice. Take you succinctly where they’re going. And drop you off, neat and complete, at the end.

A great short story crystallizes life’s enormity into a handful of pages, bringing everything that matters (for the purpose of the tale) into sharp experiential focus. It can be fast, slow, funny, sad, shocking, haunting, blunt, or piercing. It can be unspeakably beautiful, or uglier than sin.

It can do anything it wants, so long as it does it right.

When I edit an anthology like PSYCHOS -- or the previous Black Dog volumes, ZOMBIES, DEMONS, and WEREWOLVES AND SHAPESHIFTERS -- my mandate is clear.

1) To find definitive classics that helped lay down the foundation of the genre. (Largely dating from the late 1800s to, let’s say, the 1960s.)

2) To bring in the equally-pivotal works of the 1970s and 80s -- when all the walls came down -- up till now.

3) To present original stories from this booming-as-we-speak Golden Age, in which some of the best short fiction I’ve ever read is currently being produced.

4) To put it all in context, for a modern audience. Draw the lines from here to there, pointing arrows into the future.

So yes, the little kid inside of me can’t believe that he’s been able to assemble vintage Poe, Lovecraft, Saki, de
Maupassant, Bradbury, Bloch, Sturgeon, ‘‘The Monkey’s Paw’’, ‘‘The Most Dangerous Game’’, and ‘‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’’ into his mix. All the stories I grew up on. It’s a staggering thrill.

Add to that a pop culture A-list of titans -- Thomas Harris, William Peter Blatty, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Max Brooks, Lawrence Block, Chuck Palahniuk, Charlaine Harris, and Stephen King -- and my hit list goes through the roof.

On the literary end, there’s Angela Carter, Leonid Andreyev, George Saunders, William Gay, Jim Shepard, and Christopher Coake. All spectacular. All blowing past the narrow parameters of genre.

Stir in the amazing authors who came of age with me, in the 80s and 90s: Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum, Robert McCammon, David J. Schow, Kathe Koja, Poppy Z. Brite, Robert Devereaux, Elizabeth Massie, Adam-Troy Castro, Steve Rasnic Tem, Francesca Lia Block, Bentley Little, Brian Hodge, Karl Edward Wagner, Douglas E. Winter, and Richard Christian Matheson, just for starters. Smashing through the barriers of what genre could be.

Only then do I get to the astounding new voices, as yet unsung, that are helping define this fresh century’s promise of further ground-breaking excellence: Cody Goodfellow, Laura Lee Bahr, Amelia Beamer, Carlton Mellick III, Mehitobel Wilson, Mercedes M. Yardley, Eric Shapiro, Scott Bradley and Peter Giglio, Nick Mamatas, John Gorumba, Ed Kurtz, Tessa Gratton, Weston Ochse, J. David Osborne, Violet LeVoit, Jeremy Robert Johnson, and so many, many more that I only wish I could list them all.

My goal as an editor is to cherry-pick the great stuff, give you only the best of the best. Or, at the very least, present to you my personal favorites, in a way that both satisfies and flows.

Taking you on a series of epic trips. And thereby letting you know I love you.

Because that’s what those early anthologies did for me.

In closing: PLEASE KEEP OUR BOOKS ON YOUR SHELVES FOREVER, OKAY? Because that’s how we keep the torch alight.

And thank you thank you thank you.