Book Reviews by William D. Gagliani

Abducted

Anyone who has ever feared bringing a stranger into the house, anyone who has ever felt a parent's greatest fear, anyone who has felt guilt at juggling career and family . . . will get a jolt by this tidy little thriller from first novelist Brian Pinkerton. It's a lean and mean Greyhound of a thriller—not a wasted word or scene, and it gallops with the requisite speed.

Ironically, Anita Sherwood is about to quit her high-stress, high paying, West coast software job to devote herself to her two-year old, Tim, when Fate intrudes and his devoted nanny kidnaps him from the Sherwood house on her last night. Given up for dead, Tim's loss leads Dennis and Anita Sherwood to the brink of emotional disaster and over, leaving Anita neurotic and dumping Dennis back into the bottle he had once conquered. But there's more, of course, and Pinkerton lays it out without frills but oh, so logically, at least in the first two thirds of the novel.

You see, it's not long before Anita starts to find Tim almost everywhere she looks. Since his body is never recovered, her hope becomes a lifeline. Even though the rest of her life and marriage more or less hit the skids, she can hope Tim is alive though everyone tells her he's dead. But then, two years later, in Chicago, Anita is certain she has glimpsed a four-year-old Tim with another woman. This time, she's certain. And she's not about to give up until she finds him again.

And the plot is off and running again for the second half. What could have been another insipid "what have you done with my baby!" story line instead achieves a neatly developed suspense. Should we, like the police, humor Anita? Is she right? Has she brought aboard the best possible allies in her quest? Exactly what did happen to Tim? Just how...

Afraid

This one bursts out of the gate like a buzz saw headed straight for your gut. As we will see, that is mostly a good thing. Most readers seem to love or hate it, with few to be found on the fence. I thought the book made good fodder for a discussion of style and approach, so this review is also an exploration of fiction writing technique, at least in the horror-thriller nexus.

Afraid is the debut title for J.A. Konrath's alter ego, Jack Kilborn. Nice way to get his initials in there, the name of his other protagonist (Jack Daniels), and arguably the word Kill, plus the fact that he is "born" of JA's Jack books combined with more killing. Definitely deserving extra points for creating a pseudonym with a powerful totem.

Let's look at the plot first, since the book is plot-heavy. Then we'll touch on the controversy, much of which is fed by the author's tongue-in-cheek but very PR-wise advice that people should not read the book because it is too scary. J.A. Konrath knows his PR techniques and psychology, and utilizes both with unerring skill.

A helicopter crashes near Safe Haven, Wisconsin, a sleepy little up-north community surrounded by deep woods. The crash survivors are the townspeople's worst nightmare, incorrigible body-altered seasoned killers implanted with program chips and aimed like a weapon against, well, everyone. Their black uniforms recall the Waffen SS, but their name is "red-ops," and they are out to locate something that the good folks of Safe Haven don't really know they know about. These aren't just soldiers, they are killing machines without consciences, serial killers with credentials stamped by the government. (If this stuff doesn't already exist, let's hope no neo-con...

All the Rage

F. Paul Wilson has written in various areas, including SF and horror, straight and medical thrillers, fantasy, and you name it. But he's probably best-loved for Repairman Jack.

Once in a while someone comes up with a great concept, turns it into a series, and makes us happy forevermore. That is what F. Paul Wilson did when he wrote THE TOMB. In Jack, he created a character who's part noir-style detective, part Zorro, part Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder (without the bleakness) and part Block's resourceful Evan Tanner. Perhaps Wilson didn't think of Jack that way, but these comparisons might give you some idea of what Jack's like, if you've never read one of the Repairman books. And if you haven't, shame on you!

In THE TOMB we met Jack (not his real name), a loner who's an independent contractor, operating so far outside the System that he doesn't even appear on tax rolls. Specialty: fixing people's problems, off the books, for cash payments. Strange situations require strange fixes, and Jack is always willing to help an underdog beat a Goliath. THE TOMB is still one of the best blends of crime and horror ever done.

Jack, a down to earth kind of guy, faces a nightmarish, indestructible demon creature out of Hindu mythology - a whole shipload of them, in fact. The "rakoshi" have been bred and imported to settle an old blood feud, and Jack finds himself squarely in the middle as people he has come to love are either on the list or in the way. It's not giving much away to reveal that Jack survives, but once touched by the rakoshi and what they represent, he can never turn back the clock.

The next Repairman Jack novels were LEGACIES and CONSPIRACIES, both solid chapters in the life of a "freelance vigilante" who's in...

Alternate Lives

Part of the Enigmatic Novellas series, this nicely designed chapbook contains two short stories by Bradshaw, who appears enrolled in and a wholehearted subscriber of the school of "quiet" horror, and that's not a bad thing. Quiet horror seems to be making a comeback, with all the 
ghost novels and ghost-related movies out in the last several years. While these tales aren't at all flashy, there's a comfortable English calmness about them, making them pleasant to read despite the dread they slowly build.

In "The Vanishers," Brian is one of five department store employees made "redundant" in the new economy. Each Monday, the five meet in a café and support each others' efforts to find jobs (though it's hinted that such success would lead to jealousy). But then they begin to 
disappear, one by one. Brian investigates and eventually discovers where the missing have gone, though not how or why, all the while realizing that he is ready for imminent vanishing himself. Predictably, he's the last to go.

While adequately written and somewhat atmospheric, the story goes exactly where you expect it will, and itself feels "redundant"  in that other sense. Indeed, each disappearance brings little or no discovery, making the story seem bloated and slow, thereby dulling its message.

"The Lonely Ones" is more promising (and reminds me of one of my stories). The narrator becomes obsessed by a woman on his daily bus ride, a recognizable situation worsened by the recriminations he faces every day from his wife, who desperately wants a child and who blames his "dead sperm" for the failure. Again Bradshaw explores the drab lives of hopeless, unhappy people, but this time squarely hits the mark. Contact Firebird Distributing, 2030 First...

The Apocalypse Door

Here's a slick and stylish hard-boiled thriller from one half of the team of Macdonald and Doyle who normally produces space opera. The Apocalypse Door blends a cup of espionage with a hefty dash of horror and fantasy resulting in a lightweight but still satisfying thriller that would make a great movie (despite its complex backstory, which even includes a parallel and intersecting narrative from the past).

Reminiscent of both Tim Powers' superb novel Declare (see my review on this site) and one of the seventies' best off-beat series, The Inquisitor by Simon Quinn (actually Gorky Park's Martin Cruz Smith hiding behind a suitably pseudo-religious monicker), The Apocalypse Door is a lot more humorous than either and makes an excellent series "pilot."

The novel posits that France's King Philip did not manage to destroy the Knights Templar in 1312 (which he attempted for his own nefarious reasons). Indeed, many Knights were tortured and executed after "confessing" their sins of heresy to the Inquisition, and the order's vast wealth was sacked by the money-grubbing monarch. But here it turns out the order survived secretly and even now acts as a sort of religious CIA-OSS-KGB. Other military orders such as the Teutonic Knights also survived, as did some pretty wild orders of cloistered nuns—and all these groups now vie with each other and with world intelligence agencies in the pursuit of justice. Of course, justice is relative. A neat twist on the Templar history is that the 33 members of the Inner Temple are priests as well as trained operatives, which presents some rather interesting moral dilemmas. (In reality, Templars were known as warrior monks, taking vows of poverty and celibacy, but were often of noble birth and not ordained clerics. They did,...

Ask the Parrot & Lemons Never Lie

Here's a brief celebration of noir literature—a couple of classics by Richard Stark, who sometimes cops to the alias Donald Westlake*. Generally speaking, Westlake does the funnier stuff. Not that it's all funny, mind you, but at least darkly sardonic. Classic caper novels like the Dortmunder books The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, not to mention The Ax, The Hook, and so many others. When it's time to get tough, though, then it's Richard Stark all the way. Here we have two recent Stark releases, though one is a re-release over thirty years old. They seem like a great set of bookends separated both by thirty years and just a few months (thanks to the Hard Case Crime line).

Feel like taking a walk on the wild side? The Stark name usually means Parker, the professional thief and dispassionate hard guy whose exploits he's been chronicling for over 30 years. In Ask the Parrot, we pick up right from the end of Nobody Runs Forever, when Parker's running from the police and their dogs after yet another job gone wrong (he's on a streak). He bumps into Lindahl, a man with a gun, a hideout—and a tasty proposition. Parker's willing to hear him out. After all, Lindahl's the only game in town. Turns out Lindahl's been nursing a grudge against a race track that done him wrong, and he still has card access to the inner workings, including the money room. Parker agrees to plan a new heist, while remaining skeptical. But he does need money . . . and, like "The Purloined Letter," hiding in plain sight's not a bad idea. Soon, Parker's out with a gun-happy posse—hunting for . . . Parker! Suffice to say this doesn't go so well, either, but not the way you'd think. Plus, the new heist has its own complications, and Parker has never been so exposed to so many people, each of whom could...

The Asylum (Volume 1): The Psycho Ward

Fans of extreme horror will want to take note of The Asylum, an anthology series of nightmare journeys through insanity in all its forms. This is fare not for everyone, I admit; Volume 1 is an uneven but enjoyably over-the-top collection teeming with tight, frightening stories that question our sanity while frequently twisting our reality into a pretzel.

The highlights are superb stories by the reliable and often unforgettable Douglas Clegg ("The Machinery of the Night"), along with Sephera Giron ("Release"), Scott Nicholson ("Do You Know Me Yet?"), Gerard Daniel Houarner ("Child Jar"), J.F. Gonzalez ("Love Hurts"), Thomas Deja ("Too Needy") and eight more. Though the occasional story seems underdeveloped (John Platt's "Flames in the Night" comes to mind as more of an outline), and the "Wall Poems" scattered throughout don't quite jell into the desired symbolism, there's enough here to give almost anyone nightmares for a month (which is not necessarily a bad thing, if you like fiction with impact). Write: DarkTales Publications, PO Box 675, Grandview, MO 64030 for information

Atmosphere

Eye-catching covers help sell first novels, and there's no denying the attractive qualities of Michael Laimo's first novel effort after a couple fiction collections (The Dregs of Society and Demons, Freaks, and Other Abnormalities). The cover's lovely, upside-down woman's face superimposed over the Manhattan skyline was a two-row face-out at a B&N I just visited, proving that store personnel know a selling point when they see one. I'm happy to report that what's in the book matches the outside—Laimo's novel is a satisfyingly slick blend of noir, horror and SF, reminiscent of the hard-edged urban tales of F. Paul Wilson and Thomas Monteleone, to name a couple. There's more than a hint of The X-Files here, though it's subtle and rarely distracting.

Detective Frank Ballaro, NYPD, has just closed a high-profile (and bizarre) murder case, when he literally stumbles onto a crime in progress in his own neighborhood. A young man is apparently murdered by a black leather-clad, bald assailant. His dying breath reveals one word: "atmosphere." Between the time he's required to give a statement to old friend Hector Rodriguez and learning that his own case is far from closed since the suspect has made bail, Ballaro feels himself sucked into a vortex of events that ring his detective's suspicion bell loud and clear. Knowing that the murder occurred in his backyard, too near to his college-age daughter Jaimie's routine haunts, he feels bound to help Hector with the increasingly "out there" investigation.

Short on sleep, Ballaro relies more and more on intuition and bizarre clues as they discover that (apparently) a squad of bald men in black have recently taken to murdering young male victims, and not only in New York, but elsewhere as well. The FBI may be...

Audiovile

Michael Arnzen has made a career out of conquering different narrative forms: novel, poetry, flash fiction (often written on PDA for that "small" feel), nonfiction, and the grey areas in between. You just knew he'd try his hand at the musical audio-book someday, too. Fortunately, Raw Dog Screaming Press has given him carte blanche to inflict his Audiovile recordings on anyone with the technology to listen. Why, that would be all of us!

These sixteen tracks are taken mostly from his flash-fiction collection 100 Jolts, where they only sat there, scaring and grossing you out and tickling your hairy funnies two-dimensionally. Now here they come, reinvented and backed up by musical etchings, ready to invade your ears and claim another dimension. These Jolts were already sharp as scalpels, but now they're slashing and bashing your ear drums, too. Tracks such as "Psycho Hunter," "Brain Candy," "Obictionary," "Take Out," and "Stabbing for Dummies" (a highlight, certainly), and "Not the Reaper" all come across not quite as songs, but as Beat poetry for the sadomasochist. Not exactly sung, not quite read, Arnzen narrates each piece with an enthusiastic growl in which you can hear how amused he is, trying on this new mantle. The Morrison of the Macabre? (Some of the tracks do have a Doors vibe, man, with all the killing and metaphysics, man.) The Ginsberg of Gore? (He'll make you HOWL, with laughter.) The Kerouac of Killing? (He'd need that long roll to sop up all that blood.)

There are no bad tracks, though they're all "bad" in that not much of the imagery, poetic as it may be, is "good" as in "positive." But that's what makes this unusual audio-book such an unexpected pleasure. A good test for true Audioviles—spring this upon your "straight" (non-...

Awash in the Blood

When small-time televangelist Reverend Mo Johnston travels to Transylvania for a Halloween soul-saving and preaching marathon, he doesn't know how it will affect his ministry. He's in earnest about saving souls, but he's not above showmanship to increase his TV reach. Also recently divorced, he's constantly fighting against a rising lust he feels for his beautiful young producer, Alicia.

On the last night of his exhausting tour, he's attacked in his hotel room by a creature which bites him on the neck. Johnston invokes the name of Jesus and the creature flees, convincing the televangelist that he has fought Satan and won. Ever ready to exploit, Johnston makes Alicia grab the camera, creating "Hallelujah—Not Halloween," a special in which he dramatizes his struggle with Satan. Little does he realize how effective the show is, as love donations start pouring in.

In the meantime though, Johnston sickens and rapidly worsens. And lusts he had before his attack are now magnified until he cannot avoid them. Suddenly he develops an aversion to light. He's drawn to a strip club and a dancer named Denise. Even as his ministry grows without him, Johnston dips into his basest lusts and—finally—learns that he can bestow eternal life with his bite. But rather than see himself as evil, Johnston believes he's been blessed by God. For who else could give his flock eternal life?

What the TV preacher Mo Johnston learns about himself, about others, and about faith makes up the remainder of this enigmatic novel, which veers in tone from gothic to traditional, from erotic to religious, and from serious to sometimes bordering on the comic. There is a darkly comic vein, after all, in seeing a pick-up-driving televangelist turn into a vampire, not to mention when he...

Pages

randomness