Book Reviews by Stephen Studach

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,...

Phantasy Moste Grotesk

A rusty stained scalpel, nestled on a bed of black velvet.

I have never met Felicity Dowker. However, in the imaginative realms, we have walked a few paths together.

In 2007 and the early part of last year, when I had the idea for the "New Blood" concept rising from the sludge in my head, I trawled around a little on the net for likely interview subjects. I found Felicity Dowker’s fledgling website. After a quick perusal Felicity seemed like a good subject for the prototype "New Blood" confabulation. I could only hope that her writing, unseen at that point, was of a good standard.

I contacted the lady by e-mail with my proposal. She agreed, with apparent minimal trepidation. She had not, at that stage, ever been interviewed. As requested she sent me some of her stories, so that I might be familiarised with her work, get a sense of the topography of her imagination. I read the stories. My hope was sustained. I asked for more. She sent, I read, my hope, and my initial instinct about Felicity Dowker, writer, was confirmed. Each set of tales was greedily received, much of it quality material still dripping with imaginative glamour. I was eating that stuff up like absinthe candy.

We collaborated (for that is what the "New Blood's" are in essence) and had a blast. We were a good match writing-wise. In fact, at times, it was an almost psychic writing experience. Felicity maintained respect for the concept and brought her own storytelling integrity to it. This, from someone who had never collaborated before. (That interview, which is actually the first "New Blood" piece that was composed, will appear in Midnight Echo 3.)

Since then I have watched her considerable...

Spiral

Fine black hair tendrils, drifting in a night ocean, floating through air, drifting, drifting.

I’m channeling a well, a well not filled with water but with hair. And bone. Bones buried under masses of the dead matter that is hair. Black water. Black hair. Strands of hair being pulled out from between a woman’s lips, more and more, thicker and thicker, till she regurgitates the hair like ropy, coarse vomit.

A television set in an empty room suddenly turns itself on with a dull burst of effervescent static, the bare room lit by the fuzzing electronic snow on the screen . . .

And there is a sound . . . like the single sweep of a rusty metal swing in a child’s play park; stroking the night with its brief, plaintive cry.

Can I share something with you? When I was a kid I never really liked the Japanese Horror and S.F. movies.

When the newspaper TV guide was eagerly checked and anything that looked like a product of the Japanese dream factories was seen there in that black and white programme one groaned inwardly, sometimes outwardly, and planned an alternative.

It was the curse of Toho. The ludicrous and reviled Starman, Star Prince and Supergiant (Super Jaianto) series. Invasion of the Neptune Men. The Kaiju Eiga and Daikaiju Eiga: the Godzilla (Gojira) and Mothra (Mosura) fantasies. Sure, the idea of Mothra was neat and the Son of Godzilla cute, but it was a case of too much fantasy, not enough horror. They were just way too childish for this child; who had once adored The Samurai series with Shintaro and the serial cliff-hanger adventures of The Phantom Agents. I was raised on one of the early...

The Terror

The Terror is an epic adventure, albeit a largely ice bound one. This from the pen of Dan Simmons who has, over the last twenty years or more brought us such fine books as the masterful Song of Kali (purportedly slated by the prime properties collector Darren Aronofsky as a future film project), the collection of short works Prayers to Broken Stones and the recommended Lovedeath composed of five novellas, among many other Horror, S.F., Fantasy and Crime Thriller books. Amongst his literary baggage Simmons also has a swag of awards packed away, sporting such familiar names as Stoker, Serling, Sturgeon.

Two of Her Majesty's exploration ships Erebus and Terror set forth in 1845 on an Arctic expedition to break the enigma of the rumoured North-West Passage.

It is an ill fated venture and, largely due to the expedition leader's hubris and stupidity, the ships become ice locked. The story spans the several years of this imprisonment.

Amongst and amidst the many hardships, dangers and perils of this situation for the one hundred plus men of the trapped expedition is an unknown life form. A huge beast that embodies frightening speed, monstrous power, and unearthly malice.

In his dedication Simmons basically thanks the cast and crew of the original The Thing From Another World. Therein lies a clear clue.

The writer gives us nicely detailed characterisation of a hefty list of characters. The historical details are incorporated with a minimum of fuss and almost no fanfare. The reality is gritty and true.

So, you're in awe of Dan Simmons, Mister King? Well maybe you have reason to be. Here demonstrated most ably: when Simmons brings in a big book, He delivers...

The Beast Within

The tall pine tree tops; bristling, waving fingers indicating the fulgent moon. There is a distant howling; picked up again and again in a nearing chorus. The chill air is perfumed with a melded musk of human and beast. The shadows growl . . .

That’s right, you’re in the country of the changed. Skinwalker-bound volumes are about to tell you their individual tales, inscribed with spattered blood, steaming gore, gnashing, foaming fangs and sweeping claws.

Lycanthropes, loup-garous, shapeshifters, Lycans, call them what you will, this is a tome dedicated to those who are hairy on the inside, those who have an argument with the moon on a regular basis. The Moon People. The Cursed Ones.

Though some may revel in such curse.

The werewolf has long been a favourite creature of mine from the black ark of the Horror pantheon.

Maybe it’s because of my affection for dogs? What percentage of cat lovers prefer vampires, I wonder?

Well, the appropriately named The Beast Within, from U.S. publishers Graveside Tales, gives us a bumper pack of twenty stories, 352 pages of transformations and werewolfery. It also holds an introduction by W.D. Gagliani and is dynamically illustrated, the cover and some interiors by the triple-threat editor.

I praised Joe Dante’s The Howling when it was released way back in 1980. The influence of it, and other, more recent, werewolf films is evident here of course, but variety is the central tenet of this anthology. Following The Howling (in which werewolves finally looked like werewolves) we had other fine werefilms such as Wolfen, An American Werewolf in London, The Company of Wolves, Wolf...

A Web of Black Widows

A Web of Black Widows is Showcase number 7 from Peter Crowther’s PS Publishing out of the U.K.

It holds six stories by the writer Scott William Carter and features cover art by Glenn Chadbourne.

Carter is an American writer from Oregon who has seen publication in Weird Tales, Analog, Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Chiaroscuro, Ellery Queen, Fantasy Magazine and in a number of anthologies.

Straight off—there’s not a dud work here. Fresh writing with fresh ideas, all held together by clean lines. Each piece is very concise and displays the writer’s lean but imaginative style. In fact his works can sometimes be like a black widow spider; strange, beautiful, minimalist in design, and potentially dangerous.

To the stories:  "A Web of Black Widows" opens the collection. The longest tale of the half dozen, this story is given to us through the courses of several characters. It concerns itself with the decaying orbit of a marriage, the loss of a loved one, pregnancy, tattoos, and the great metaphor of the sea. A realistic work with a bare minimum of strange to lightly shade it. Quite engaging.

Still on a beach we are presented with "The Woman Coughed Up By The Sea." A good piece of flash. It called to mind Poe’s "The Oval Portrait," but only as a dim echo. This little tale is quite contemporary. It involves us, without ever giving us the whole story either of its living or its deceased characters.

"Black Lace and Salt Water" is a Mer fantasy that takes place, largely, on the Oregon coast. It shows the result of a poet’s encounter with the sea folk,...

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