With four hours (my time zone) to go before midnight, my wonderful tech-support roomie was finally able to recover enough stuff from my old laptop to get back my stranded reviews!
So, here to finish out 2016, my looks at:
almost insentient, almost divine by d.p. watt
Death Confetti by Jennifer Robin
Scavengers by Rich Hawkins and Scavengers by Nate Southard in a same-title head-to-head!
Dark Reaches by Shaun Meeks
and a William Cook book-bundle!
Title: almost insentient, almost divine
Author: d.p. watt
Publisher: Undertow Publications
My first impression upon opening the envelope was “damn, this is a beautiful book!” For presentation alone, artistry and production value and design, it had major points in its favor before I even began to read.
Then I began to read, and found the contents to be equally, if not more, artistic and stunning. Now, I do review a lot of (and I say this with affection) schlock, grossness, nastiness, and trash … but I can also very much appreciate the literary delicacies, the fine and intricate examples of the craft. That’s what you get in ‘almost insentient, almost divine.’
The writing simultaneously has an old-fashioned feel and a modern freshness. It’s clean and clear and gorgeous, the kind of thing that in another author’s hands might come off as cloying or pretentious but here is satin-smooth. I read with equal parts fascination and admiration, with touches of “ooh I wish I’d done that” envy.
The stories themselves span several eras, with subtle undertones and interconnections particularly in the form of a disturbing puppet-figure. Some are hauntingly poetic, some the kind of nightmares in which you can’t say for sure just what was the scary part but the overall effect is deeply chilling.
I am not a fan of the term ‘literary horror,’ and calling it ‘highbrow horror’ seems even worse. But this is the kind of horror I could see someone really elegant and classy – my idol Dame Maggie, for instance – enjoying with her tea.
So, yes, top kudos to d.p. watt and everyone at Undertow for putting together a truly exquisite, breathtaking piece of work.
Title: Death Confetti
Author: Jennifer Robin
Publisher: Feral House
I am not sure how to categorize this book, and find that to be somehow eerily fitting. Because I’ve met Jennifer Robin. I’ve seen her perform. As a writer, an artist, and an entire person, she simply defies categorization. Is it any wonder her book would be the same?
The subheader reads: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon. While I haven’t been a Portland resident long myself, so far what I have seen of it and what I’ve heard of its ‘essence of distilled weirdness’ reputation certainly seems to fit the tales appearing herein.
It is a look not at but into and through the peculiar angles of a peculiar city. But it’s more. There are elements that seem fictional, that seem as if they MUST be fictional … or are they? And elements that have to be non-fiction, or are they either? It’s an autobiography of a life both rich and twisted, intersecting like the junctures of a million spiderwebs with a million other such rich-twisted lives.
Does that help? I don’t know. But it’s good. Really good. Profound and piercing, lovely and sad. You feel for these people, these shapes and shadows and snippets of city life. You feel for the author, and for her mother, and wonder what in the world her mother would make of the revelations in these pages.
And the thing is, as brilliantly written (such a deft turn of phrase this woman has!), as cutting and concise and decadent the prose, it still barely holds a candle to the live readings, the performances. If you ever get a chance, do not pass it up.
On a tangential note, dang am I dowdy and sheltered … what a fantastic journey through experiences to which I wouldn’t even dream to aspire! I recommend reading it, though in smaller spread-out doses – the structure of the book, a series of mostly-brief vignettes, lends itself well to that – because these are provocative word-morsels to ponder and savor.
Author: Rich Hawkins
A weekend getaway with some people your wife knows from work … her bosses, in fact, with their toddler in tow … isn’t exactly Ray’s idea of a good time. He doesn’t know them. As a part-time store stocker and struggling novelist, he doesn’t have much in common with their more professional lifestyle.
As a couple who’ve been facing fertility struggles, being around someone else’s kids isn’t the most comfortable scenario, either. Not that little Molly is all THAT bad, but then, it turns out little Molly isn’t the one they’ll have to worry about.
The first sign of trouble is an abandoned car slewed across the road, and what bursts from the woods when Ray and Tim go to investigate. Ray’s no sooner found a lost toy in a puddle when the attack comes.
Needless to say, the vacation doesn’t exactly happen as planned. It’s death and carnage, a village with a secret, an adrenaline rush with a few sharp surprises, twists and turns and shocks along the way.
Author: Nate Southard
Publisher: Sinister Grin Press
A lot of people think that, in event of zombie apocalypse, they’d be the gritty hardcase tough types, doing the epic cross-country journeys, racking up impressive headshot body counts and facing down rival enclaves of fellow survivors.
Here’s a book about the more realistic side of things, in which even a simple supply run can be a deadly fustercluck start to finish.
That’s the situation in the tiny town of Millwood, living population only a few hundred. Even though only a handful of refugees have come in, food is scarce and they know they’ll need more to get by. There’s a supermarket in neighboring Rundburg … population far higher and decidedly NOT living.
But someone’s got to try, so all the menfolks get their names put in for a lottery to accompany a couple of the town leaders on a desperate mission to see what they can scrounge. Nobody’s happy about the results, from the women who think they should be as eligible as anyone, to the mother whose teenage son is selected, to, of course, the teenager himself
Nor are Blake, who doesn’t want to leave his girlfriend behind, or Chris, who isn’t even from here and doesn’t see why he should have to risk his life for a bunch of hicks and rednecks. They are not the makings of a great team. They can barely get along with each other for a brief truck ride, let alone when the real trouble starts.
It makes for kind of a grim read, insane amounts of risk for very little prospect of reward, and lots of gore and terror and carnage. We get glimpses of the outbreak and events-leading-up, backstory via flashbacks and such, bits of the politics … but the main focus really is on this single outing, and its costs.
Title: Dark Reaches
Author: Shaun Meeks
Publisher: Inherit Press
One of the stories in this collection, I’d seen before in an anthology and managed to successfully block from my traumatized memory until I spotted my own words from the review in the front ‘Praise For’ section.
Then it all came crashing back in full flinchworthy squicking eeeeeeek. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I wussily gloss over mentioning “Taut” this time around. Eeeeek. The hooks.
Moving on! Please. Moving on. So! Other stories! Of which, there are many … and as promised in the title, they reach to some pretty dark places. There’s a lot of death here, and a lot of undeath, and a few different flavors of the end of the world.
I found “Dreams of a Dead Man” extra-enjoyable because way long ago, my first pro sale was a zombie story called “Dawn of the Living-Impaired” about zombie rights and social activism; this could have been the same world, from another, grimmer, more tragic point of view.
But if you prefer your zombies nastier, you can find the full horror of war in “The Soldier,” and the depths of human perversion and depravity in “Body Bag.”
“Give Me Convenience” is a fun, gory little romp, a bloodbath disaster in microcosm … while “The Cleansing” presents the repercussions of a full-scale breakdown of civilization. “Mommy’s Little Demon” turns out to be far from the wry twist on Rosemary’s Baby I expected, and “Family Lessons” is its own kind of agonizing.
And those are only a few of the offerings. You’ll also get a story from the author’s “Dillon, the Monster Dick” detective series, and possibly even a bonus icky surprise lurking like the post-credits scene at the movies.
Title: William Cook Book Bundle – Hopeless, One Way Ticket, Dead and Buried, Devil Inside, Burnt Offerings
Author: William Cook
Publisher: King Billy Publications
This bundle isn’t published as a single volume, or at least hadn’t been at the point I read them … these are five different books.
But I read them all back-to-back (times five), so it’s kind of like a collection, hey why not! We’ve got variety here, ranging from the more mundane-but-monstrous horrors of humanity to full-on living nightmares of the paranormal.
“One Way Ticket” is very much in the latter category, with a sins-of-the-past / small-scale-southern-gothicy feel, as a man whose family history catches up with him in the form of a diabolical railroad. The descriptions and atmosphere throughout the story are beautifully done, beautiful in their hideousness sometimes. My definite favorite of the bunch.
“Dead and Buried” starts off with a dismal domestic situation (poverty, alcoholism, abandonment, abuse), then adds violent schoolboy bullying, then gets even worse from there. Similar themes are visited in “Hopeless,” when a little girl just wants Daddy to stop hurting Mummy, no matter what it takes … and in “Devil Inside,” which features a boy whose fears of what lurks in his dark room become even greater … and “Burnt Offerings,” as a violated teen craves revenge on her stepfather.
Those are the feature presentations; among the bonuses are some additional short stories such as the eerily lovely “Anomalous Perigee” and a sordid karmic comeuppance in “Conceived by Death,” some really chilling poetry, enlightening author interviews, and an excerpt from the full-length serial-killer novel “Blood Related.”
All together, they make rather grim reading, kind of a marathon of mistreated kids. Maybe that’s partly why the train one was my favorite, not only for the terrific descriptions but as an escape into the more otherworldly from the too-close-to-real.