Book Reviews by David Niall Wilson

The Urban Bizarre

This is not your mother's anthology, nor is it your standard horror anthology. This is not, in fact, a horror anthology at all, though most of the fiction fits that theme just fine, thank you. It is definitely a Chiaroscuro: Those Who Walk Alone anthology, if that makes any sense.

Editor Nick Mamatas spent a lot of his youth on the streets of NYC and at some point in his life, he got caught up with a group of "urban" writers who were writing "Urban Fiction." Caught up in this for a while, he realized that the streets and city they wrote of was not the one he remembered. In their stories, every character had a significant other in a high-up publishing position, they all lived in poseuresque splendor. It wasn't his city.

The following is a quote from my live journal where Mamatas explains the philosophy behind his anthology, The Urban Bizarre like this. "The only way to 'keep it real' is to actually throw realism out the window. 'Realism,' after all, is not just mimetic storytelling, but has a very specific aesthetic agenda, one that centers a middle-class personality in the foreground, and reduces everything else (class, society, religion, technological change, fear, the uncanny, whimsy) to background."

Gathered together in this book you will find the work of science fiction writers, speculative fiction writers, pornographers, and the eclectically non-challenged. There are some truly memorable tales here, and a few that will just stick like burs in your mind and worry at you.

They worry at me:

"Tuck" by Michael Hemmingson, is a sort of slice of 9/11 story. Against the backdrop of the September 11 tragedy, we see the lives of people in the city, their pain and a bit of the...

Waltzing With the Dead

Waltzing With the Dead is one of the most unique short story collections I've ever had the pleasure to encounter. While the cover art, and the majority of the stories, lend this a fantasy-genre slant, don't let that fool you. WWTD is a complex puzzle of words.

There are four sections in the book, each prefaced by a long poem by the author. The sections are breakdowns of the content, and the poetry is top notch. Many of the stories then have snatches of the poetry preceding their text, adding clarity to the structural breakdown of the work presented.

"I heard of an old man who saw only grays-he fell in love
for the first time, saw yellows, and it stopped his heart."

Rather than a "ghost story" collection, or a "Sci-Fi" collection, this book almost defies classification. There are Science-Fiction stories, to be sure. There are also fantasy stories, mystery stories, police stories, and at least one that borders on pornography, but there is a theme. The theme is where I will draw my classification for the book, and I'm going to say it is "romantic fiction." Bear with me.

The highlights of the book, for me, are some of the later stories—one in particular covers the period in time directly after King Arthur's death in the battle with his son. This story is a fresh look at one of the most "worked" themes in fiction, and it works very well, and with a twist.

I won't go into long spoilers about the stories themselves, but I will note that the continuing thread winding them all together is a theme of love, deep-wrought emotion, relationships, and every angle these subjects can be approached from is represented. Imagine a firefighter, trapped in a burning house, and the image of his wife appearing. Imagine that scene hot...

Whiskey Sour

There are books that leave you staring at the wall at their depth and literary magic, and there are dry, dull tomes filled with facts and figures, guaranteed to cure your insomnia if you aren't careful—particularly in audio format. J. A. Konrath's Whiskey Sour is neither of those things. It's very simply a fun book.

Lieutenant Jacqueline Daniels (Jack) is a tight mix of humor and grit who is wildly comical at times, and very real at others. Her partner, the over-weight and food-addicted Herb is a great straight-man, and not a bad partner, and even Jack's ex partner turned sleazy PI gets in a few choice moments of "play."

The case is simple—women are being killed. Brutally. The killer is not only cutting them up badly, but he is leaving his semen inside the cuts. There doesn't seem to be a pattern, and yet it's obviously the work of one killer. And he knows who she is.

Meanwhile, there are FBI agents thrown in for comic relief, bombarding Jack with their "profile" of the killer which at one time is a French Canadian who owns a horse. Between their threats of taking over her case and ridiculous requests for man power to stake out local stables they make just the sort of distraction that allows the killer to almost take our heroine out more than once. In fact, if Jack wasn't an insomniac, well . . .

The presentation is smooth. Normally, I prefer audio books to have a single, talented narrator throughout. In this case, Brilliance teamed up one man and one woman to play the various voices and parts, and it works quite well. The action carries you rapidly from scene to scene and from personal problem to public hell so fast you may find yourself wondering how it happened.

In short, Whiskey Sour is a very entertaining...

American Gods (Audiobook)

AMERICAN GODS is one of those novels that is incredibly ambitious, but you don’t realize it until you are lost in the middle somewhere, the mundane world far behind, and your mind reeling. You have a hero named Shadow—in jail because he took the fall for a robbery that his wife was involved in. He’s just been doing his time, learning from his cell mate Low Key—waiting to get out and home. His wife is waiting. His job, working at a body building “farm” for his best friend—is waiting. Did I mention Shadow is huge?

A few days before he is to be released, Shadow gets a call to visit the warden, and from there—anything goes. Meet Mr. Wednesday, an enigma unto himself. Every character is a story, every story stretches back to the roots of our country—the very things that make America—well—American.

Ever wonder why you can’t seem to turn away from fifty signs that lead you to the world’s largest ball of string? Why is it not odd that you can drive through Illinois and make your way from Cairo to Paris in a couple of hours? What happens when you leave your homeland and go to a new world, but you still believe in the Gods you left behind? How do Leprechauns get their gold?

This isn’t a synopsis. I’m not going to give away the surprises and insights that make this a wonderful novel. It has Aristotle’s three parts—the conclusion of which is complete and satisfying. It has some romance, some magic, some philosophy—even some history. It has all the appeal of Kerouac’s On the Road—but with a major twist.

Don’t be surprised if you buy this, and then find yourself wanting to sit in the car JUST A LITTLE LONGER to hear what happens next. The narrator, George Guidall...

Blue Angels

Stephen Humphrey has a unique poetic voice, somewhere between the hip of old and the cynical of the new. Drawing from Biblical sources, legends, dreams and nightmares, he has painted a poetic image of angels—the fallen, the ruined, the insecure and the forgotten. He has given them faces and names, hopes and dreams, sublime power—and then no power at all. He has made their faces things we can recognize and understand and yet, just out of reach he dangles those things we can't know or define. He hints at higher powers while humanizing his subjects and offering them up. This book of poetry shows the seamy side of angels as you've never seen it, and yet finds the time and strength along the way to paint an image of their existence as fragile—something we could destroy by our own obsessive attention.

The presentation of this edition takes chances. There are a lot of font shifts, some text constructions designed to present the words and images in a variety of styles. Some of this works nicely, and at other times the difficulty in reading the fonts steals some of the power of the words themselves. This book is entertaining on several levels and shows deep thought and insight. Four of five tombstones . . . recommended.

Cemetery Dance #47

Magazines are odd birds to review. Do you review the overall publication, take it story by story, hit the art and content? I've decided on a mixture of some of the above. Mostly, I ramble, but I will cover the fiction and mention other content as I go. Long time Cemetery Dance magazine readers might find themselves nodding along with me—others might be irritated, but that goes with the territory of saying what you think, I think. If you are not familiar with CD—go to the above site and do yourself the favor of partaking of at least one issue. Also, while you're there, check out the wide variety of fine limited, hardcover and trade paperback books. Heck, check out my own novella, Roll Them Bones. Tell 'em I sent you.

PART THE FIRST: David Schow interview followed by an excerpt from Bullets of Rain his new novel.

This is a great interview. Schow has the gift of putting things into a no-bullshit perspective. He has a career absolutely RIDDLED with experience, film, television, novels, and through this all—he likes to be considered a short story writer. I like that. Short stories are my own first love, but many people cannot write them. Many others, after turning to novels, can never get back to short form properly, and end up with skeletal stories with characters and plots screaming for fat they will never have, like a reverse Atkins diet gone mad.

Anyway—I don't see the sense in reviewing an interview, because it is what it is. Let's say I enjoyed it. I've known Dave, or known of him—been acquainted with him—etc., since (going into the way-back machine) the days of Skipp and Spector's meteoric rise in horror and the WHC where they all strutted around in black leather and looked about a thousand times cooler than the fandom...

Feral

Normal Hills, Washington, is anything but. The Bogey Man is just a story to scare children, isn't he? Is Metallica life, or is it Anthrax? These questions, and others are answered in Brian Knight's fast-paced supernatural thriller, Feral.

This novel is not pretentious, or boring. From the first line the action is intense, and the pace carries you along toward the finish at an amazing clip. Parts of this novel are reminiscent of Peter Pan gone mad, and other parts remind me of China Miéville's fantastic underworld that ran beneath the surface of King Rat.

This debut novel has flaws, but they are easy to brush aside. In fact, they are brushed aside by the images themselves. There are several stories within these pages, not perfectly meshed, but each intriguing and thrill-packed in its own right.

The action runs rampage through Normal Hills, and the reactions of the police, the non-extant press, and the city itself would lead one to believe that they don't exist, with a few exceptions. If what happened in Normal Hills, and Feral Park really happened in any city over the number of years this novel suggests, then there would be more notice. There would be national notice. There would be paranormal weenies crawling over and around the park (and dying, no doubt, but there, all the same).

But Feral is a fast ride, and these details blur as they pass—or don't—and the ensuing vacuum draws you into the nightmares of children, a fantasy land created by a long-dead ghost-girl, and the childhood nightmares of parents not yet free of their own Bogey Men. It would almost be better if the veneer of normalcy attempted by the development of the real-world characters could be excised, because the darkness, and the magic in this book...

Hearts in Atlantis

Hearts in Atlantis is actually four separate stories that blend into a sort of interactive novel. This was okay, as far as it worked, but in the end might be the biggest flaw.

Part one, read by William Hurt, is “Low Men in Yellow Coats.” This is King at his finest. A young boy, baseball–buddies–bullies and young love. Awakenings on many levels, including the jump from Rick Brant and The Hardy Boys to THE LORD OF THE FLIES, a work that comes back again and again to haunt the reader as King uses first one, then another scenario to show you the pig-hunting wild boys that surround us all. Also the question recurs - who will save the crew?

There is just enough of the otherworldly in "Low Men in Yellow Coats" to twist things so that htey don’t really fit our reality, and just enough reality to the characters that you can cry with them, laugh with them, and share their dreams. Low Men ends on a down note, as so much modern horror seems to, not really answering any questions for the characters, or the reader, but then–you have the hope of parts II and III.

Part II, the title piece, is “Hearts in Atlantis.” This is also wonderful writing. Kids caught in their first year at university, caught in the cusp of high-school and adulthood, the war in Vietnam looming all around them and the reality of scholarships dependent on grades haunting them day and night. "Hearts in Atlantis" is the story of a generation, its rise and its fall, and of addiction–the addiction of a game, in this case, but a study in obsession that goes well beyond the occasional beer, or the stack of magazines with Pamela Anderson in the corner. The kind that eats at you day and night, leaving you wanting to quit, even as you grin and...

Move Under Ground

"Where are Dean Moriarity and Carlos Marx? Rising from Underground . . . Doom, Gloom, Doom . . ."

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

What a perfect book for a Chizine review. I mean, Kerouac walked alone, right? The beats hit the road and never looked back, digging the bop in clubs across the nation, making love to who and what they met and marrying repeatedly, only to cross the country on a hitching jag and send long-distance for a divorce to marry the next girl. Except, what if those beats got older? What if they REALLY had some power in those over-stimulated minds? What if they had to save the world?

Followers of the "beat" authors, Kerouac, Kesey, and others, a generation of writers and poets, musicians and young people searching the highways and cities, the alleys and rural jungles of America for "it"—that cosmic something, Dharma, Zen, through motorcycle maintenance or the application of the thumb to the air and shoe-leather to asphalt—will recognize elements of Move Under Ground and claim them. Others, those who have the dark shelves full of every issue of Weird Tales since the early days, and Arkham House tomes in careful linear rows, slip-cased when possible and dripping shadows that they carefully hide behind their backs while talking to visitors through the cracks of barely opened doors will be equally at home in the lines of Mamatas' prose, possibly bringing about some sort of odd juxtaposition where the latter group postulates that Kerouac must have had a shelf of old horror novels in the back of his bedroom as a youth, and written in the pulps under a pseudonym, while the "beat" crowd nod and wonder how they could have failed to dig this prophet Lovecraft much sooner.

This is a fun book, but don't let that...

Stained

In Lee Thomas' Stained, we find a novel of depth and intensity sadly lacking in most genre fiction. While populated by child molesters, murderers, policemen, and a standard town full of standard characters, that town and those characters come to life and draw the reader in.

Thomas chose to start this with a single horrendous act of hateful crime, and then, in the aftermath of the shock this brings, to introduce his characters, one by one, tying them to one another with long tendrils of plot. The protagonist is a man in transition, dealing with the pain and trials of a past life as he tries to build a new one.

His friends, all of whom gather regularly for poker, make up the majority of the novel's troupe of characters, and each of them has troubles of his own. They are bound to one another by memories of their past, and the reality of their present. Though they know one another well, as happens in small towns, there are dark closets and shadowed corners that each of them would rather not shine the lights on too brightly.

And then something really dark comes to town, casting shadows so lightless that the secrets start to show up in contrast, despite their own carefully crafted hiding places. Killers are captured, but the darkness remains, and no matter how many answers are found, the "stain" seeps out under the door and brings more questions.

This is a well-crafted, very mature novel. The prose is smooth, the characters utterly believable and the plot draws you right in and holds you. Believe me when I tell you, it will show you once and for all that you "don't know Jack." The suspense starts on page one and holds you right on through to the end. Very highly recommended.

FIVE TOMBSTONES