Book Reviews by William D. Gagliani

Easy Go by Michael Crichton

Easy Go cover

Though Michael Crichton would go on to write The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, The Great Train Robbery, Rising Sun, Jurassic Park, and many more, this is the first of the eight reissued "John Lange" thrillers written by Crichton in the ’60s and ’70s. Of the eight, I selected to read this one first specifically because it's a caper novel about locating and robbing the long-lost tomb of a little-known Pharaoh. For me that's a win-win, because I love capers, and I tend to love anything Egyptology-related in just about any genre. I also loved the Glen Orbik cover painting on the typically handsome Titan trade paperback enough that I'd frame and hang it, though it depicts a scene that never happens in the book.

Harold Barnaby is a bored archeologist specializing in Egyptian hieroglyphics who believes he has discovered a secret message hidden in a routine bit of Egyptian invoicing. It appears a secret (robber-proof) tomb was built for a minor Pharaoh and the secret died with the builders and architect, all of whom were slain as payment for their efforts. Barnaby concocts a crazy idea: why not rob the tomb, rather than discover it and turn it over to the antiquities-savvy Egyptian government? The book was written in 1968, during the very days the Aswan Dam project was being completed and the temples at Abu Simbel had been cut apart into thousands of stone blocks and moved to save them from the imminent flooding (as an aside, I remember reading about this and being fascinated as a 9-year old, for it sounded highly adventurous; even then my own interests were solidifying). Barnaby meets Pierce, a burned-out and disillusioned American journalist-photographer on his way out of Egypt. Once he hears Barnaby's story, however, Pierce is energized by the idea of...

Edgar Allan Poe's Dark Dreams

Imagine if Edgar Allan Poe were alive today. Would he attend the World Horror Convention? Maybe hang out at the bar (but not too much) and get into a conversation with Alan Clark, shuffling through some of Clark's latest sketches? Would they hit it off and decide to work together some day, with Clark providing illustrations for some of Poe's favorite stories and poems?

The result of such a collaboration might well be "Edgar Allan Poe's Dark Dreams," a lushly conceived and realized booklet of the sort Poe might have self-published. Except it was Wormhole Books who orchestrated this collaboration over the centuries, reminding us how much we owe the American master of the macabre. Clark's vibrant illustrations lend just the right atmosphere to the work of a man whose every sentence dripped atmosphere—and these get more stunning every time you look at them. A starkly severe portrait of Poe by Joanna Erbach opens the proceedings. Entertaining essays by Ed Bryant and Dawn Dunn examining Poe's literary stature and biography bookend the volume, with the contents consisting of three poems ("The Raven," "The Conqueror Worm," and "Annabel Lee") and three tales ("The Black Cat," "The Telltale Heart," and "Berenice"). While some may gripe that a few more tales might have given the volume some heft, it may be that a taste is all it was intended to be, enough to lure some of those brash beginners who've managed never to crack a Poe collection and ensnare their imaginations forever.

I think it's fitting that this new Poe publication be placed on a bookshelf among the modern classics of the grotesque. He's never gone out of style, though we may have slipped a bit in our remembrance. Thanks to Wormhole Books for giving us a gentle reminder, a nudge in the right...

El Dia de los Muertos

This compact novel may be only 100 pages in length, but it's packed. Multiple Stoker Award-winning author and editor Brian A. Hopkins scores again with a multi-layered work that draws emotion effortlessly from committed readers while also raising the "grotesque factor" by quite a few degrees in just the right way. Anyone who's read earlier Hopkins collections such as "Salt Water Tears" and "These I Know by Heart" will already know that he has the innate ability to slip an emotional dirk through your jaded armor and skewer your heart just when you don't expect it. You won't be disappointed with this novella, a masterful blend of thoroughly modern grief and old gods, as well as those who would invoke the latter to relieve the former.

When a terrible earthquake in Mexico claims noted archeologist Ricky Bennington's young daughter, grief and desperation unite for gut-wrenching impact, as he grasps at the one ritual which could help him recover not one, but two lives on the Day of the Dead, when the line between worlds is at its thinnest. Ricky plays a shaky hand—but what hands will the other players lay on the table? Led from a gruesome exchange to one even more devastating, Ricky learns that when dealing with gods and men, one should always prepare for the worst, because both are capricious.

The first half of the novella sets the stage with strong place details and research joining to provide a travelogue of dread—for Mexico's bloody history, its people and its gods, and its modern but anachronistic disposition all blend into a seamless portrait of a place where magic is not only possible, but inevitable. The second half fulfills the promise by bringing Ricky to the very precipice of madness—an understandable, even forgivable madness, and one he...

Electric Dragon

First-novelist Patrick Wood's Electric Dragon is a near-perfect portal into a foreboding future London where perfection has become the main criterion for official existence—anyone born imperfect, deficient, illegal, or undocumented must go to a workhouse by law. Any such being has no rights and Dushma, who lives with her reluctant guardian, the seedy "Aunt" Megan, inside the arch of an elevated train viaduct, is a non-person. Orphaned by her mother's death in a camp for protesters, Dushma cannot attend school—her unregistered status prohibits her from receiving an education. Which is okay, because her street education is beginning to pay off. She routinely explores the city and the imposing St. Gotha's Cathedral. A sudden police raid by a suspicious, savage Inspector Rappleman makes her a fugitive, though the dogged pursuit seems unusual and out of proportion with her "crime."

Dushma soon finds herself among other outcasts, a group of wannabe kid-revolutionaries who have taken refuge in an abandoned subway station, Hitler Street (an embarrassing attempted appeasement now walled off and forgotten). Beltrowser, the electronic tinkerer, Susskin, the upper-class malcontent, and Ibmahuj, their bland leader spend their time scavenging and telling stories and evading the elidra (fearsome electric dragons used to police the tunnels), but taking in Dushma will eventually lead to betrayal and discovery. What is Dushma's secret—one even she doesn't know? Out of these elements, Dushma must fashion a destiny, but what will it be?

Wood's tale (Young Adult to Adult in level) is an inventive neo-gothic with touches of P.K. Dick/Blade Runner motifs. It features a plausible near-future SF London that's very Dickens-by-way-of-Gaiman, the city almost itself becoming a...

Eternity

There's something funny going on in Eternity. The town is the kind of mountain resort we all want to visit when we get away from it all. But there's something really funny going on, and Tamara Thorne's going to tell you all about it.

Just sit back and let her guide you to the local stone circle, a mini-Stonehenge said to possess supernatural powers. Feel light-headed? You're not alone. The circle makes people dizzy, but does it also make them crazy? At first glance, yup!

There's a local loony-bin, for one. There are UFO sightings and crystal-worshiping New Agers, not to mention the tall-tale-tellin' townsfolk - like the mayor, who lets on that he might be Ambrose Bierce. There's a dead ringer for Amelia Earhart. And Elvis One and Elvis Two, one of whom just might not be an impersonator. What about Jim Morrison, still sexy and apparently not dead?

But if the stone circle promotes eccentricity, it's done a doozy of a job on a certain someone - Eternity has had more murders in its history than you can shake an ice pick at. Tourists and the last two sheriffs all fell victim to the same killer, and the town council has covered up the crimes. Until now, for they've hired ex-Los Angeles cop Zach Tully, and he won't stand for their weird shenanigans. Or will he? By the time Tully arrives, the killer's added to the body count - and he's started leaving notes signed as "Jacky." With all those famous dead and missing people walking around, why not Jack the Ripper?

Tully has no choice but to jump right in - besides the newest murders, it turns out that Jacky is terrorizing Kate McPherson, the tour guide who found the last sheriff's mutilated body, and her young son. Tully's escape from LA stems from his inability to catch...

Eye of the Burning Man

Harry Shannon splits his time between writing about monsters (Night of the Werewolf) and amateur sleuth Mick Callahan (Memorial Day). Callahan is one in a long line of memorable, colorful amateur sleuths whose adventures we love to share. A licensed therapist and radio talk show host with skeletons of a ruined career and drug-alcohol addictions in his closet, he's also an ex-almost-SEAL and a bare-knuckles boxer abused by his obsessed father. The long list of flaws and near-flaws is what keeps him interestingly contradictory. He's down home, he's Hollywood. He's sensitive, he's a flaring-temper tough guy. He's both of LA and anti-LA. And he's good at dispensing psychology on the air, a sort of cowboy Frasier Crane, but he rarely manages to take his own advice.

Mick's not really a sleuth, as such. He's a knight-errant, a righter of wrongs, a defender of the weak (even if sometimes he is himself weak). He's not an investigator, but more reactionary; he doesn't drive the action, the action drives him. Shannon's deft touch makes these contradictions work, reminding us of our own. We are all slaves to our weaknesses and Callahan, he seems to be saying, is smart enough to recognize his but not always smart enough to beat them. Much more than the plot, we're drawn to Callahan because of who he is.

But the plot's engrossing, too. It's been some time since the events of Memorial Day, and Callahan thinks he's put all the death behind him. He's moved to LA and now has his own hit radio show in a bigger market, dispensing advice to the lovelorn. His own relationships are shaky at best, as proven when he's drawn into a street fight and subsequently dumped by his new girlfriend. But the fight also draws him into yet another violent case. First, his maid's nephew...

Eyes Everywhere

We all have a paranoid streak. In today's world, it might be considered healthy to entertain a bit of paranoia: looking over one's shoulder, listening for NSA clicks on the line, knowing our mouse-trails say way too much about us, almost hearing all that personal data dribbling into databases accessible to people and institutions whose natures would curl our hair—if we only knew. Yes, paranoia is healthy these days. But for Charlie Fields, protagonist of Matthew (The Organ Donor) Warner's new novel, paranoia is only the beginning, and it's most certainly not healthy.

In fact, it's a routine workplace anti-terror attack exercise that sends Charlie spinning into an abyss of delusion and schizophrenic ravings which will rapidly ruin his life. Working as a male secretary in a DC law firm and watching his job slowly shrink toward eventual disappearance is bad enough. Add in the ineffectual terror attack "preparedness" nonsense par-for-the-course these days in DC, snarky co-workers, a mysterious sudden death, and baseless allegations of racism based on one ill-conceived comment, and Charlie's mind is primed for self-destruct. Who'll provide for his wife and children if he's downsized out? Who'll pay for the house Lisa so desperately wants, and the new child he's certain is on the way? How insignificant can one feel as he's forced to "look busy" so as to not attract undue attention? When he starts to notice connections between seemingly separate events and people, Charlie enters into a painful world of ever-magnifying fear. Why is he being followed? Why is he under covert surveillance, his every move covered by snipers? How can he save Lisa and his children? Charlie bolts.

At some point Charlie's very real fears, some of which we all share, become illusory...

Failure

It's hard to keep from exclaiming "What a cute little book!" when faced with this first of a new hardcover chapbook series from reliable Delirium Books. With no insult intended, it is a very cute package—a miniature hardcover measuring about 4.5" × 6.25" and sporting a full-color wraparound library-type binding (no dust jacket). It's different enough to grab your attention just based on its physical appearance, enhanced by the slick cover art. What's inside?

Failure is a longish short by John Everson, Stoker Award-winning author of Covenant. Though Covenant had its harder-edged moments, it was nevertheless a fairly quiet novel. Failure harkens happily back to true erotic horror: some of it will sicken and arouse (often simultaneously) and make you feel guilty for enjoying it, which most of us who appreciate it think it should do. This is an old-fashioned, supernatural, slippery orgy of violence and sex, where blood is a perfectly viable kinky bodily fluid.

Three suicidal, self-styled dead-end teenagers agree to give an old man a thrill by copulating inside his pentagram, but Aaron has more than that in mind, reciting an incantation and offering an unexpected blood sacrifice in order to exert control over death. Six months later, all their chickens come home to roost and the three find themselves racing to Aaron's house, different purposes in mind. He's waiting for them, and so is the fruit of their previous labors.

Though too short to offer many subplots, Failure manages to portray with accuracy the sort of nihilist teenagers one often reads about after-school shootings—teenagers who have no reason to be dead inside, but who nevertheless seek an exit from a world they think does not want them. They don't...

The Fall of Never

In The Fall of Never, author Ronald Damien Malfi reimagines a Frankensteinian creation story and reaches for the appropriate gothic elements to do it.

Documentary filmmaker and prodigal daughter Kelly Rich is summoned home because of her sister's health after having survived a mysterious assault. Kelly herself is none too healthy, feeling bits of herself slip away into her suspiciously buried past and childhood. Kelly lived parts of her life as a nightmare, but how much of the horror was perpetrated upon her, and how much sprang from her own mind?

Married at 18 as a form of escape from her oppressive household, Kelly can't quite recall why home was so stifling, why she hates her aloof parents (or why they seemed to hate her). And what about Simple Simon, the boy she played with as a child? Where did he come from, and what happened to him after she left? Why is her fate so closely connected with his?

The family mansion is a true gothic setting: cold, empty and remote, set on a wooded hillside, peopled with servants who act strangely and a family whose hushed tones hide volumes—the Rich household might as well reside in a different century. This setting wars a bit with Kelly's New York City life, but then that's the point. Her new life was a conscious and intentional reversal of her beginnings, but now those two sides come crashing together in unexpected ways.

In the parallel story which begins with Kelly before being summoned home, Kelly's friend Josh, who's working on a documentary with her, their subject, the elderly Nellie Worthridge, and the dedicated Dr. Carlos Mendes, all become connected to Kelly's fate through a bizarre set of circumstances that ensnares them to the very thing that has led to Kelly's summons.

If this...

Fetish

If you've read the author's Survivor, then you know he can get down and dirty with a disturbing plot and completely reprehensible characters. You know he won't pull any punches. You know he'll gladly twist up your guts and challenge you to keep reading, just one more page, you know you can do it! But, oh man, it's tough. That's the kind of visceral horror J. F. Gonzalez thrives on, and he's damn good at it. Like Jack Ketchum's Girl Next Door and Off Season, the work of Gonzalez evokes strong reactions across the spectrum. If you're not affected, you might already be dead.

That's why it's interesting to note that Fetish is quite a bit tamer, quieter than his usual level of hyper-realistic grue and depravity. There's some of that to be found in Fetish, to be sure, but it's a more restrained Gonzalez we see here, perhaps an experiment in toning down the subject matter to avoid inciting outrageous reactions. There's still plenty of tough and disturbing detail, but it's spread a lot thinner, and it alternates with a gritty, more realistic police procedural approach, resulting in an effective sort of '80s-'90s LA noir.

Detective Daryl Garcia hates gangs and their loser members due to what happened to his first wife. He'll do anything to arrest any gangbangers on his beat, LA's seedier, post-riots environs, and coerce confessions from them. He and his partner are not above planting evidence, concocting confessions, and intimidating both witnesses and perps. But when it becomes clear that a serial killer is stalking gang members from across the board—hitting all different gangs in the area—the police find themselves plagued with a dual problem. The killing spree is heating up tensions in the Latino community, where each gang thinks their homies are being...

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