Book Reviews by Stephen Studach

From Hell

“Worfipped”

Let me tell you about the best Graphic Novel that I've ever read. In fact at the time of reading it (June of 2001) it was the best horror work I'd read in five years.

A work of horror wherein horrible things actually happen.

How refreshing.

I had come to it late. From Hell was first, partially, serialised in the late eighties early nineties in the comic anthology Taboo.

Illustrated by Australia's own Eddie Campbell, this is a work of wicked genius, from the haunted hedge maze, arcane mind of Mister Alan Moore. The best of British horror grounded in a very British subject. Ghoul Britannia!

We will not here dwell upon the unique weirdness of British writers of the macabre. Suffice it to say that a long and noble lineage has brought us the modern product of dark fantasists like Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Tanith Lee, Kim Newman, Michael Marshal Smith, Iain Sinclair and, of course, Alan Moore.

"Dark Business"

This tome is the last word in the Ripper story. It incorporates almost every known facet of Ripperology, and then some. And that's just in the appendix sections. The least of the organs therein.

From Hell takes fact and fiction and weaves them into an, at times, feverishly delirious extrapolation of the darkly fantastical.

From the very first frame the project's excellence is obvious. The raw, often chiaroscuro, artwork perfectly suits the story that it wants to inform us of, in grimy greys, foreboding blacks and blanched whites. Campbell has loaded his pen with old English darkness, soot and blood. The words are matched skilfully with the images, the whole neatly presented.

The book has a large and rolling cast. Within its pages you will meet...

Gift of the Bouda

“Most people think of Special Operations soldiers as cowboys; Rambo-types that bust through doors then kick ass and take names. There is an element of truth to that, but the violent actions on contact usually come after painstaking planning and exhaustive rehearsals; preparation that writes every movement you will make into a script of muscle memory. Success on the battlefield doesn’t just happen.”

“I glutted myself quickly in the open body cavity, as werewolves came to punish my trespass.”

“It was just the nightmare. I never ate my kid, or my wife, except in the nightmare, because I left before it could happen.”

Tales of Were creatures have been around at least since the days of the ancient Greeks. Though not as prevalent as the ranks of vampire and zombie stories, the shapeshifting genre is an interesting and rewarding realm to enter.

In the field (or forest) of werewolves alone, many classic works and treatments have been conceived.

So, what does Richard Farnsworth bring to the reader with Gift of the Bouda?

Automatic weapons, werewolves and werehyenas, a new kind of guerrilla war on terror.

“Special Forces owned the night.”

Wrong, in this instance.

The opening eight pages of the prologue set the trend.

Rapid fire with professionally detailed military action. You are there. Quite frankly this is a fun read. The story comes at you like a really good “B” movie, if “B” movies were really good which the majority, these days, are not. Full Eclipse comes to mind, the best scene of which was a brief shot in a zoo of a beautiful blue-eyed White Wolf. More recently, and closer to the mark here, there is the 2010 film Hyenas. The less said about that one the better. Most “Were” films fail to...

The Glass Woman

Once you purchase this collection and open the door of the cover and read, you will enter realms where a living glass woman is on display in a glass box, you’ll meet the Streamers/Screamers and the Bone-Dog. You can linger in "The Drawback" and marvel at a tidal giant. You’ll visit "Al’s Iso Bar" during a quest for a husband, meet those who work for the god of the love of money, journey through peculiarly skewed cultures occupied by people who are like us, but strangely different. You will briefly dwell in stories and character experiences that are akin to our own but just one step to the sinister side of the path. And there, you will find a thin trail, leading off into the greater dark.

Kaaron Warren has been a tale telling tour guide along such trails for close to twenty years now. She carries a uniquely magical lantern to illuminate her way, but she is sparing with it, will only light so much of the dark upon each tour.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful, darkly perverse, amazing universe of Kaaron Warren’s imagination.

I have been a fan of Warren’s writing since 1993 when I first experienced several of her stories.

Kaaron Warren honed her talent on the short story whetstone. For well over a decade she produced award winners and enduring works of the short and novelette form.

Of late she has become a published novelist. Angry Robot books initiating that phase of her career by giving her a three-book contract. The first of the three is Slights, already drawing much interest and acclaim.

There are at least five classics in this collection. Works that will stand in the ranks of the better examples of short genre writing for decades to...

Hannibal Rising

A brilliant read! Here is a lesson in how to construct a genre novel, an education in style and substance. The dark thriller as haiku.

Thomas Harris: for my money the score sheet should show that Red Dragon (1981) is the best book and The Silence of The Lambs (1991) the best filmed version of the books. Some have in hindsight lauded Manhunter (1986), the first Red Dragon film interpretation. But in comparison with Silence—you've got to be kidding. If you haven't already, read Red Dragon then check out the far-less-than satisfying film by the over hyped Michael Mann. The second cinematic attempt upon the first novel, Red Dragon (2002), also failed to embody the superlatives of the book.

After the excesses of Hannibal now this fourth book in the cycle arrives, in comparison almost out of nowhere and unheralded, in more than one way the polar opposite of the preceding tome. Hannibal is probably the least of the books to feature the good doctor but the most ballyhooed and the one that garnered the biggest prize financially for its author. That lucrative ground was set by The Silence of The Lambs, an engrossing book as well as the finest of the films featuring the gourmet doctor. Here now is Hannibal Rising, which does not shout or bluster, but speaks quietly and lyrically in a well modulated, slightly accented voice from a dark compartment of the psyche.

One should not compare these books really, for each is a quite different work. For me the most interesting component of the epic neo gothic horror comic of Hannibal was the hint of the terrible fate of Lecter's baby sister. Herein we have that fate recounted, our forebodings fully...

Haunted

Every story is a ghost.

They are still, writers.

There are writers who are akin to ghosts. They may have extensive, respectable, large bodies of completed works, even have an honourable list of published pieces. Yet, they are insubstantial, these writers, these scribblers and their careers, their reputations, their achievements.

They have not been gifted by the golden light of discovery warm and radiant on their faces. Some will perpetually have shadows upon them, year after year after year, decade after decade, as torturing ambition slowly turns rancid.

They are still, writers.

Then there are writers like Chuck Palahniuk. One of those lucky few. Living the 'rock star' writer's life. Multiple book contracts, buoyed by generous advances, books-to-movies with wunderkind directors attached, anecdotes sprinkled with media celeb names, big dollar 'options', 'treatments', 'developments'. He certainly seems to be living thus. Yet, he too, is still a writer.

Chuck Palahniuk seems to be living a writer's life. As Dickens, De Maupassant, Hemingway, that other 'Literary Ambulance Driver' Maugham, Burroughs, even Ellison and Barker lived and live writers' lives.

No phantom he. And deservedly so.

Palahniuk is a prime, living, working example of a 21st Century writer making 21st Century writing.

Sure, it might not be 'Great Literature' but it is entertaining, engrossing and some of it may make you laugh out loud (if you like that kinda stuff).

It might be interesting to talk to Chuck Palahniuk. Maybe it would be like talking to a good bullshitter. Except more entertaining.

Palahniuk is an 'A' grade bullshit artist.

As any 'A' grade writer needs to be.

I came to Palahniuk (...

House of Leaves

During Exploration #5 Navidson had no illusion about what he would find there. While staring into those infernal halls, we can hear him mutter: “Lazarus is dead again.”

XVII Footnote 374 page 395.

Ah, that pitchy, architecture and physics defying region makes me suspect that the crawling woman from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper" may well be, even now, making her way along those ashen walls.

Stranger things might be found there.

Or very little at all.

House of Leaves...

Is a big, bad, bastard of a book.

A work of fiction (?) with its own index.

A craft project from a confused and disturbed mind.

A well educated upstart’s wank with no climax.

A cruel collage.

Hefty, heavy, (go on—when you catch one slap it—Hard! Drop it on a desk from a decent height. It resonates not just in words and format. Its dull thud, thump, informs it as—Book!). You can go around slapping walls with this tome, try it, it’s great! Heck, you can practically hammer nails with it.

It is hard going, if you are a reader who doesn’t like to let a word get by you. An "easy read" Not. ¹

It might take you a month to read!

It could infuriate you.

It is arrogant.

Impertinent.

Deathly dull.

Insufferable in parts.

And it has

oh so many

parts.

It is a liar’s bullshitting mouth.

It’s an anus with word diarrhoea.

It’s a simple list.

It

is

a whale.

And a wail.

A formless, senseless behemoth.

And of course, self...

Malpractice

Perhaps, after he died on the island, this is where Doctor Moreau went.

Entering the grubby marble foyer of Bloom Memorial Hospital, after a brief introduction from one Nathaniel Lambert, the first person we meet is Felicity Dowker. She has a nightmarish story to tell us of staff recruitment at Bloom.

A little further, into the shadowy corridors of this edifice, W.D. Gagliani and David Benton whisper to us of Bloom's history; growing from a subterranean "Tree of Life" and its "gift".

Soon we are exploring the facilities from wards to crawlspaces to basement and beyond, and there is always whispering, screaming, staff notes, bloody scrawls upon once white walls, to inform us about this establishment and its practices.

Putting the "Mal" into Malpractice, with 31 works, a balanced mix of short stories (longer operations) and flash (quick cuts), this themed anthology uses almost every one of its 240 pages to build upon its keystone.

Bloom is located in the limbo land of post accident trauma. It is peopled; staff and patients and visitors, by damned and damaged souls who can never leave. Bloom Memorial is a research facility and a monolithic antechamber of Hell. Each wing echoes with whispers, moans, screams and manic laughter. Each ward and waiting room carries, beneath the thin veneer of sanitary disinfectant, the scent of blood, the taint of putrefaction. Every room holds a multiplicity of stories. If these halls and corridors could talk . . . Well, they wouldn't. But the walls might bleed and seep and sob. The whole edifice suppurates a taint of misery and suffering. The foundation stone is grounded in the miraculous. But it is a corrupt miracle that brings Bloom into flower.

First...

Mister B. Gone

Burn this book.

Now who could resist that as the first line of a book?

I know I couldn’t.

Clive Barker burst onto the scene back in the early eighties and was, for a time, like the Elvis of Dark Fiction.

But Clive has long since left that building.

However now, well, now it looks like he’s coming back into this big place where we all toil; some in the basement and sub-basements and the networks of caves under there, some in the middle number listings, some, rarer few, up in the lofts and penthouses, with their big bloated dirigibles full of fantastical hot air moored to and drifting above the roof. Well, Mr. Barker is at least loitering out near the front door. (The long awaited The Scarlet Gospels, the collection that turned into a novel, suggests that he may, eventually, kick a few doors in.) The chap he is loitering out there with is one Mister B. Gone and he looks like troub–  Oh . . . they’re in the foyer now . . .

With Coldheart Canyon Barker seemed to be warming up, entering the darker waters once more. Although that book had its lighter aspects and definite fantasy elements.

Now comes this little book. An entrée, a preparatory text, a comical hymn (composed by a drink and devil ravaged monk) before the main proceedings of the Gospels.

This is Clive doing stand-up comedy. But he’s standing on a scaffold, smiling, with a noose in his hands. You might call it black humour, depending on your mirth meter’s setting. For all its grim little chuckles there is subtext there.

It is a gallows humour piece, giggles at the gibbet, a road movie for demon lovers.

What awaits you?

...

Nightshade & Damnations

Nightshade & Damnations is a prime collection for any Speculative Fiction reader's shelf.

What a shame that Kersh could not be living and writing now. I think he'd fit in nicely with the modern mode of story and its practitioners of psychological, atmospheric darkness.

A clear, concise, no fuss writing style. Technique as subtle as the practiced Ju-Jitsu move that sweeps you into its easy hold, taking your momentum and intention, then using both for its own ends; whirling you about with swift and steady, expertly applied power till you end up on the mat, rumpled and just a little bit dazed.

In regards to plotting, Kersh seems to have had a mind like a steel trap.

Intelligent, metaphor enriched, abuzz with characterisation, this book is in fact, as with Kersh's complete oeuvre, a midnight gallery of character portraits.

Gerald Kersh wrote and was published from the 30's right through to the late 60's producing hundreds of stories and around twenty novels. He lived a street level writer's existence, and that reality informs his works.

English born into a Jewish family, Kersh had been a bodyguard, a wrestler (briefly), debt collector, picture theatre manager, cook, salesman and other things. He was in the Coldstream Guards during the Second World War and he and an unfinished manuscript of his were buried together by a bomb blast during the London Blitz. Kersh was resurrected, but the manuscript was not so fortunate. After that incident he carried a piece of his own cartilage around as a talisman, a memento of bad knees after his premature burial. He eventually swapped the gristle for an American's Zippo lighter.

Kersh was reportedly a bit of a scrapper and had survived attacks by knife and hatchet.

He...

No Country for Old Men

And Mammon laughed.

Not strictly a Dark Fantasy genre piece, if this falls anywhere it’s probably in Contemporary Western Thriller territory, though elements of it defy those conventions as well. Defying and denying genres is often a good idea. If you create something it will fall into the boxes naturally enough, and eager hands will seek to brand it. There is enough dark speculating in this work to warrant its examination here.

The land this story stands in is composed of rock and ridges and large open stretches that shimmer in heat haze and generate mirages. Out there hawks hover, prairie wolves range and rattlesnakes wait. You’re at the borders of physical and mental states there, in cowboy boots on hot sand that fast bakes spilt blood black, and the flies come soon enough.

In such a place men and women don’t need the landscape to gift them with delusions. But the landscape is always there.

Nothin’ wounded goes uphill.

A quick read written in down-home language, this novel nevertheless addresses some tough issues and concerns itself with ordinary human beings struggling with questions that have no clear answers.

Young, new writers, working in the modern context of fiction should find some solid, easy lessons in the text. How to write tight and taut. How to keep prose running smooth and fast and close to the bone yet still build detailed character from it. Easy back and forth dialogue, no strain there.

For my money the past master of high energy prose would have to be David Morrell. His First Blood debut novel from 1972 was something different then and still stands as the exemplar of the machinegun belt school of delivery. Broken text, rapid fire pace,...

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