November 30, 2011

Chasing Tale for November 30th, 2011: Ellen Datlow, Brian Keene, John Adjvide Lindqvist ...

Oh my god, Christmas is less than a month away. And despite the tinsel-tinged propaganda urging--practically demanding--I get into the Christmas spirit, it just hasn't hit me yet. I'm in my thirties now and I find my hokey cheerfulness doesn't really kick in until December 20th. One of my neighbors put up his Christmas lights on November 19th. Come on, that's unnecessary. The Christmas caroling is going to get a tad grating after so many weeks, too. Yeesh, I'm kind of a humbug, aren't I?

Oh well, just wait until December 20th, then I'll be a jolly old soul. Until then, here are some books I count as early Christmas presents:

Blood and Other Cravings by Ellen Datlow (editor) - I can't think of an anthology yet that's disappointed me when Ellen's name has been on the cover. If she mined gold the way she mined short stories, she'd be a bazillionaire. This anthology is, you guessed it, about vampires at least in part. I won this from Suzanne Johnson's blog, Preternatura, and it came with a wonderful signed note from Suzanne, which incidentally promotes her own impending novel, Royal Street, due to be released in April 2012. Just sayin'.

The Cage and The Last Zombie (Issue #1) by Brian Keene - A slew of horror and dark fiction authors took part in a giveaway hop in October called the Coffin Hop. It was a neat way to check out different authors, some I'm already familiar with and others I'm just discovering. As an added bonus, many of the authors offered prizes, and I wound up winning these two book from Kevin Lucia. The Last Zombie has to be the first single issue comic book I've held in my hands in--oh god--fifteen years. The time warp emotions with that make this prize a real treat.

Harbor by John Adjvide Lindqvist - Count me among the ranks of those who absolutely loved Lindqvist's debut novel, Letthe Right One In, so it should come as no surprise that I jumped at the chance to read and review his latest offering. I read a review somewhere that called him the Swedish Stephen King. I don't know if I'd go that far, but he's really good. If Harbor does half as much for ghosts as Let the Right One In did for vampires, then I'm going to love this book to death.

The Placebo Effect by David Rotenberg - David Rotenberg will be stopping by the blog on February 1st to promote the first book in his new series, The Junction Chronicles. Simon & Schuster Canada was generous enough to send along an advance review copy of the book, too. It's about an acting coach who moonlights anonymously as a human lie detector for various companies, only to become a target, and he suspects its because of something he heard during one of his sessions. Plus, a government agent is hunting down him and others with his talent. At face value, it sounds like a cross between Lie to Me and The Fugitive. I hope it's good.

Lunenberg Werewolf by Steve Vernon - Nimbus Publishing sent me a review copy of Steve's latest book. If you enjoy folklore and local legends and have yet to read Steve's work, you really need to find one of his books. His collected stories revolve around the Maritimes, yes, but the ghost stories and rural legends highlighted in his books are easily accessible to anyone the world over. I have a feeling this book will be no different. I recently blogged about a children's book his wrote called SinkingDeeper, which was also published by Nimbus. Good stuff.


What books showed up in your mailbox this month?

November 29, 2011

Rabid Reads: "A Dark Matter" by Peter Straub

A Dark Matter
by Peter Straub
Knopf (2010)
512 pages
ISBN 9781400096725

I had purchased this book back in March, shortly after seeing its inclusion as a nominee for a Stoker Award, it had been on my wish list ever since it was published, and I figured it had been long enough. After it won the Stoker Award in June, I sat down to read it, and upon doing so was warned by several horror aficionados and Straub fans that this was a disappointment of a book. Now, I've only read two of his novels prior to this one (Ghost Story and Shadowland), which I found to be simply stellar, so I figured some of the disappointment from readers likely stemmed from this book's divergence from previous works in terms of tone and temper. I think I was right on that count, but did I still manage to avoid being disappointed myself?

Author, Lee Harwell is set to work on his next project, but while his publishers are hankering for him to write a nonfiction book, he takes that idea and decides to turn a piece of his own life into a novel. Well, it's really a piece of his wife's life from their college days, in which she and a small group of friends around a college town fell under the spell of a vagabond guru named Spencer Mallon. While Lee thought the guy to be a charleton, his then girlfriend (also named Lee but nicknamed "The Eel") fell for Mallon hook, line, and sinker. It all built to a occult-like ceremony in a meadow one night that left one dead, another missing, and everyone else irrevocably changed. And Lee is bound and determined so many years later to finally discover what happened in that meadow and how it has affected those close to him.

For a book so subdued in tone, there's a lot of mystery to the event in the meadow and whether there was something supernatural that actually happened or not. What the book lacked was suspense or any sense of urgency for Lee to discover the secrets of Spencer Mallon and his short-lived band of devotees. I mean, the guy spent decades before he finally decided to get off his ass and figure out what his wife and the others had been hiding from him. If the love of life wound up blinded, supposedly by whatever happened in that meadow, I'd like to think I'd be a little quicker looking for answers.

The other problem I found was the spiritual leader of Spencer Mallon didn't come off as all that impressive, intimidating, or intellectual. Even through the recollections of his devotees, he seemed as much the shallow cad as Lee Harwell established at the start of the novel. The whole notion he attracted a flock of youthful followers seemed implausible, though in real life it amazes me the types who are able to charm the public, so maybe I should give that part of the book a pass. As for Lee's wife, also named Lee but nicknamed Eel, was another character that could have been a lot more captivating, but she spent the majority of the novel offstage, both in the present and even the past. A bit of a shame, but her absence was a crux to the story's plot. When she does show up, she's an alluring character, which is why I wish she had more time on the page.

A character I did thoroughly enjoy was Hootie Bly, a mutual friend of the Hartwells who was also a Mallon follower, who went insane after the ritual in the meadow. He winds up unable to speak except through quotations from Hawthorne novels, then more literary works, thanks to the benefit of a photographic memory. The interactions with him, while brief, were a treat.

All in all I did like the book, but it didn't enrapture me the way Ghost Story and Shadowland did. My preconceptions brought me down, as did the silly notion the story might be more like Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show than Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger--both good books, but I've got a clear preference for one over the other. For a novel that essentially entails a character sitting around and reminiscing about events in which he played no part, it's able to provide a satisfying mystery--just not a spellbinding one.


CymLowell

November 28, 2011

Rabid Rewind: X-Men First Class


X-Men First Class
starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, and Kevin Bacon
directed by Matthew Vaughn
screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zach Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn
Twentieth Century Fox (2011)

After the last couple of X-Men movies, I figured the film franchise was running on empty. X-Men First Class retrofits a Cold War era pastiche on the characters, making the old quite literally new again.

The focus of the story is on Professor X (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) before they adopted their X-Men personas. Charles Xavier is a young man from a privileged home, looking to become an ambassador between humans and the emergence of mutants. Erik Lensherr is a Holocaust survivor, out for revenge against the Nazi scientist who discovered and exploited his magnetic superpower. One driven by hope, the other by revenge, both men find a common enemy and a contentious friendship as the learn their powers and help others like them. The first class of X-Men.

The movie tries to remain loyal to the continuity of the films, rather than adhering to whatever canon exists in the comic books--no doubt infuriating fanboys everywhere. And the way the movie gives little winks and nods to the preceding movies, replete with cameos and passing mentions of what's to come for certain characters, makes for a much better experience than if the film had tried to do a complete reboot of the franchise.

The casting is again a strong suit for the film, as each prominent character is fleshed out to a point that they seem completely believable. Kevin Bacon played the especially devious scientist/mutant villain in the film, closer to a vintage Bond villain than something I'd expect from the pages of a Marvel comic. McAvoy and Fassbender were unsurprising in how good they were, Jennifer Lawrence as a teenaged Mystique did a bangup job as a conflicted mutant trying to decide which side of the battle she's really on. Even January Jones was tolerable on film as Emma Frost, thanks in large part to the character requiring only a cold, emotionless demeanor, which seems to be Jones' range judging by her previous performances. In fact, the only terrible thing about January Jones in his movie was the CGI associated with her character whenever her skin turned to diamonds. The effects looked so dated, they looked like they belonged in a film from the early 90s.

There were really only two other glaring disappointments for me with this movie. First, Hollywood's nasty habit of killing off the black man first rears its head in this movie as Darwin is the first of the X-Men to get killed off. What the hell? It's beyond cliche now. Secondly, and far less annoying, was Mystique's utterance of the phrase "mutant and proud." I'm sorry, but that was so awkward a line, I'm surprised Jennifer Lawrence didn't lose her balance while saying it. The fact she said it without rolling her eyes and letting out a heavy sigh shows how accomplished she is as an actor.

I find myself grading the movie on a curve. It's definitely one of the better superhero movies to come out over the last ten years, a decade that has produced a glut or mediocre to horrendous offerings in the genre. Outside that category, it's slightly above average summer fare. It's a movie that relies heavily on its special effects, yet has the good sense to use a solid story as its framework.

November 24, 2011

Rabid Reads: "Willy" by Robert Dunbar


Willy
by Robert Dunbar
Uninvited Books (2011)
257 pages
ISBN 9780983045724

With a title like "Willy," it's really easy to tap into my inner frat boy. And lord knows I blurted out, "can't wait to get my hands on Robert Dunbar's Willy well beyond the joke's expiration date. So, now that I've finally gotten round to reading this novel, it's time to get serious and offer my opinion on Robert's latest work.

Willy is not horror literature in the way most of us consider the genre, but it is most certainly dark fiction--very dark. The book starts in a strange fashion, and as the first few pages progress it becomes clear this is a story told by an adolescent boy as he writes in a journal, in the dark, on his way to his new school. It's a school for boys that winds up feeling like the land of misfit toys. All of the boys either have emotional issues or are downright crazy, and the same goes for some of the teachers, too.

At no point in the novel do I recall seeing the boy's name, which seems fair considering the book is in his own words, and who among us writes down our name in our diaries?

The boy's thoughts drift as he recounts his days, even writing things down as they happen, which gives the pace of the story a harried, through-the-keyhole ambiance, especially through the first half of the book. In a new school, surrounding by students and teachers who either confuse him or irritate him, the boy tries to keep to himself most of the time, but still manages to incur derision from just about everyone--until he meets his roommate Willy.

Willy has an aura about him, inspiring either fear or deference from the other boys in school--sometimes both--and as the boy writes in his journal, it seems Willy takes him under his wing. Then, some aspects of life at the school become easier for him. He has friends, he shows an aptitude in some classes, his latent love of poetry starts to shine through, and the shadows in the woods seem far less imposing. But, other things take a darker turn, as the principal holds a disdain towards Willy and the boy's friendship. This is where subtle hints of homo-eroticism start to seep out from the pages. Nothing is admitted outright, except for the boy's growing devotion to Willy, and a willingness to do whatever he can to remain in the enigmatic boy's life.

The novel was a hard one to get into for me, as the writing style was the antithesis of a hook--more like a bramble bush--and challenged me to read, an unspoken promise that things would become clearer, the deeper into this boy's mind I delved. At times the narrative feels like a tightrope, never knowing which way the boy's psyche might tip and fall, or if he might actually come out at the end unscathed, or at least intact. It's the kind of book that requires more than a day or so upon finishing to really appreciate. Even after you're done, the words will still creep up on you, like the things just out of sight in the woods where the boy wanders.

Willy is a far cry from Robert's debut novel, The Pines, which was outright horror. This novel is the personification of sinister subtlety. A few passages feel laborious, but the work as a whole is masterful.

November 23, 2011

Wish List Wednesday #105: John Hornor Jacobs' "Southern Gods"


Wish List Wednesday is a semi-regular spotlight on a book currently on my wish list. It could be a new release, a forgotten classic, or a hidden gem.
 
It seems every month or two there is a novel that the horror blogs really rally behind. And leading into this fall that book belonged to John Hornor Jacobs. It seemed his name popped up on my blog roll every week. I've even got John's blog on my Google Reader, but it's one of many that have slipped under the radar lately. Now that his debut novel is out, and thanks to the many horror blogs I love, I've got the book on my wish list.

The novel is called Southern Gods, published by Night Shade Books, and it looks like a perfect storm of quite a few things I love in my horror. It's got a nostalgic setting, a southern gothic vibe, some Lovecraftian influence, a bit of noir thrown in for flavor, and the Devil. That's quite a stew.

Here's the plot summary (courtesy of Goodreads):

Recent World War II veteran Bull Ingram is working as muscle when a Memphis DJ hires him to find Ramblin' John Hastur. The mysterious blues man's dark, driving music - broadcast at ever-shifting frequencies by a phantom radio station - is said to make living men insane and dead men rise. Disturbed and enraged by the bootleg recording the DJ plays for him, Ingram follows Hastur's trail into the strange, uncivilized backwoods of Arkansas, where he hears rumors the musician has sold his soul to the Devil. But as Ingram closes in on Hastur and those who have crossed his path, he'll learn there are forces much more malevolent than the Devil and reckonings more painful than Hell...

In a masterful debut of Lovecraftian horror and Southern gothic menace, John Hornor Jacobs reveals the fragility of free will, the dangerous power of sacrifice, and the insidious strength of blood.

That sounds really enticing, so I shouldn't be surprised that a lot of book blogs have already hopped on the bandwagon. Have you heard about this book already? If so, have you read it yet? What did you think of it?

November 22, 2011

Rabid Reads: "Theatre of Curious Acts" by Cate Gardner

Theatre of Curious Acts
182 pages
ISBN-13 978-0-9839531-5-9

The first page of every Cate Gardner story is a rabbit hole, through which you find yourself falling into a wonderland of her design, and Theatre of Curious Acts offers a deeper plunge into the abyss of Cate's imagination than anything of hers I've read yet.

This short novel tells the story of five soldiers cast out of one hell, of course being the Great War, and thrown into an entirely different one--fewer bullets, but more monsters. The spotlight character, Daniel, winds up on a journey with four brothers in arms; Swan, Harvey, George, and Ken; as they must navigate their way through a surreal nightmare inside the Theatre of Curious Acts. The theatre has a surreal nature to it, as Daniel is initially there to take in a show, but finds himself whisked onstage and into a netherworld where he and his friends are at risk of becoming trapped, or possibly destroyed. That's because the theatre sits at the end of the world and there are powers in play that would like very much to see that happen.

The interwoven nature of Daniel's traumatic and horrific experiences in war for Britain with the supernaturally haunting aspects of what he finds inside the theatre felt surreal while reading this book. There are moments where what's happening feels murkier, encased in a shroud that only lets you see very subtle imagery or emotions, while there are moments that soon follow that feel epic in scope with a blazing intensity you might expect if the Sun got too close.

As much as the relationships Daniel had with his fellow soldiers were engaging, especially his somewhat contentious relationship with Swan who comes off as a dashing cad most of the time, it was the interactions he and the others have with the Four Horsemen--or in this case, the Four Horsewomen--or maybe it's Horsepersons. Each of the four carry such brightly contrasted personalities and have their own intentions behind what's happening, they tended to steal the show. Olivia was a particularly striking character, but I must confess to enjoying the Rowan character a bit more. Maybe because her tone was a bit more deliciously caustic.

In any case, it's a rich and undeniably bleak tapestry that Cate paints with her prose throughout this story. I'm definitely going to have to revisit it again, and hopefully glean a little more the second go round as a reader who has walked that path with its characters once before.

If you like fantasy with a dark edge and a romantic, albeit desolate, air throughout, this is a book you ought to consider.

November 21, 2011

Rabid Rewind: Transformers 3


Transformers: Dark of the Moon
starring Shia LaBeouf, not Megan Fox, and a bunch of giant robots
directed by Michael Bay
screenplay by ... an eight-year-old boy playing with action figures?
Paramount Pictures (2011)

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, and a shame bomb blows up in my brain.

The number of things I hated about this movie are too plentiful to count, due in large part to its ungodly two and a half hour running time. So, if you want to know what I thought of this movie, just read my review of Transformers 2 and replace the "2" with a "3."

For now I will challenge myself to write something nice about this movie.

...

Ummm.

...

Megan Fox had a pretty convincing English accent--what? That wasn't her? Why wasn't she in the third movie? Did it take Michael Bay two movies to realize he had a bad actor on the cast? If that was the case, explain Shia LaBeouf.

Dammit, say something nice!

Okay, I think it was pretty progressive on Michael Bay's part to cast Frances McDormand as the second-hottest female on the cast ... by virtue of there being only two female actors in the movie.

Sorry, that's all I got. Let's just watch a YouTube video of a kitten trying not to fall asleep.



November 18, 2011

Monster Movie Marathon Roundup 2011

October treated me to some absolutely great guest posts from authors and bloggers. The Return of the Monster Movie Marathon showcased sixteen people with a passion for monsters that equals or surpasses my own. It's been a couple weeks since the marathon ended, but I still wanted to compile links to all of the guest posts for convenience and easy reference. And who knows, maybe next year will be even better with The Bride of the Monster Movie Marathon.

'It Has to Do with the Teeth' by Carol Weekes: I wouldn't have thought there'd be a way to sneak in a Sherlock Holmes reference while writing about monsters, but Carol found a way by discussing one of her earliest frights in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Monsters are one thing, but when they've got iconic sharp teeth, that's something else altogether. Jaws, anyone?

'Monster Love' by Louise Bohmer: I wrote about my own affinity for Monster Squad during last year's marathon, but Louise really hammers home just how great a children's movie this was. And it's astonishing to look back and realize that the movie is almost twenty-five years old.

'Zombies and the Rising' by Tim Marquitz: While the focus for this marathon is on movies, I don't discourage contributors from drawing outside the lines for something iconic, and Tim picked out one of the most iconic zombie novels ever--if not the zombie novel--in Brian Keene's The Rising. I read that book for the first time in the summer of 2010, as well as its sequel City of the Dead, and I'm inclined to agree with everything Tim wrote.

'Monsters on TV' by Midnyte Reader: Another guest post that went a little off the beaten path by showcasing some of the greatest monsters from television. Pam highlighted some doozies from The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, and even Star Trek. I gotta say, the Salt Monster that Kirk and Spock battled was one of the scariest things I saw as a little kid.

'Making Monsters (A Practical Guide) by Tim McGregor: It's one thing to give an opinion on the monster movies you watch, but Tim went the extra mile and talked about the monster movies he wrote. Including She Creature, UKM: The Ultimate Killing Machine and Bitten, Tim offered some great insight into what it takes to get one of these movies made--sometimes with mixed results.

'Pumpkinhead' by Mark A. Gunnells: I have never seen the movie Pumpkinhead before, but Mark has convinced me that I need to. Heck, just telling me Lance Henriksen stars in it is a mark in the win column. And I couldn't agree more about the virtues of Stand Winston.

'A Look Back at Nightbreed' by The Man Eating Bookworm: Nightbreed was one of the very first horror movies that I really gravitated towards as a boy, and it turns out the same is true for Peter. Despite my aversion to blood and guts, that movie had my eyes glued to the screen. It doesn't hurt that it was made in Canada--just like me.

'The Creature from the Black Lagoon Just Wants to be Loved' by Amy Grech: Personally, I think one of the most under-appreciated movie monsters is The Creature from the Black Lagoon. He might have the most tragic of the monster tales, seconded only by Frankenstein. Amy offers up some good reasons to give the gilled guy some love.

'Nosferatur' by Darkeva: Darkeva reminds us that vampires are at their best when they don't sparkle. Nosferatu is one of those weird movies from the early days of Hollywood that refuses to go away. And why should it? Orlock might be the scariest vampire ever.

'Night of the Comet' by Rosey's Reviews: Here's another movie I've yet to watch. Rosey offered up Night of the Comet as her choice of topic and it was all cheeseball by the looks of it. Zombies and valley girls? Yeah, I might have to check this one out.

'Mummies' by vvb32reads: Velvet may have chosen one of the prettiest and most ecclectic monster movies as her choice, with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. Mummies and a pterodactyl? Okay, I'm interested. It's based on a comic series that Velvet reviewed, so I may hunt that down first.

'Brotherhood of the Wolf' by Wordsmithsonia: Brotherhood of the Wolf is a very good reason to give subtitled foreign films a chance, and Ryan explains why. I saw this movie when it first came out and it quickly became one of the best examples of historical horror I ever saw on film.

'The Inner Animal' by Zoe E. Witten: Keeping up with the werewolf motif, Zoe espoused the virtues of American Werewolf in London and Dog Soldiers. I haven't seen the former in eons and never saw the latter. Now that I think of it, I have trouble remembering when I last saw a really good werewolf movie.

'Lake Placid' by Book Den: Jennifer reminded me there is a monster movie starring Betty White, Lake Placid. At the time the movie came out though, Oliver Platt was the selling point for me--him and the giant crocodile. Go croc!

'That Halloween Spirit' by Michael West: Michael highlighted three halloween-themed movies with monsters: Halloween, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Trick 'r' Treat. Of the three, I liked Trick 'r' Treat the best and thought Halloween III was total cheeseball. But Michael offers up a good defense for it while he reminisces.

'Critters' by Dylan Duarte: Dylan was a last minute entry with a guilty pleasure of mine, Critters. When classmates in elementary were excited about Freddy Krueger and Pinhead, I was more into the Critters. Sue me.

Again, I'd like to offer a big thanks to everyone who participated in the marathon this year. A ton of great--and not-so-great--movies to choose from for those of you looking for a monster movie to watch. And if you're looking for more suggestions, I wrote about a few myself, as well as some books: My Five Favorite Monsters from Childhood; Dinocroc Vs. Supergator; Monsters Vs. Aliens; The Mummy; Trollhunter; Bad Moon Rising by Jonathan Maberry; Those Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest; Benjamin's Parasite by Jeff Strand; Sinking Deeper by Steve Vernon

November 17, 2011

Rabid Reads: "Lockdown" by Alexander Gordon Smith


Lockdown (Escape from Furnace Book 1)
by Alexander Gordon Smith
Square Fish (2011)
273 pages
ISBN 9780374324919

Prison is no picnic, even if you're a young offender. But compared to Furnace, the prison for young boys concocted by A. Gordon Smith's imagination, youth detention centers in the western world are downright idyllic. In Smith's novel, Lockdown, an alarming spike in violent crimes by young gangs in England prompts the government to crack down and green-light the construction of a prison specifically designed to house teen boys. And every day since has displayed zero tolerance towards young offenders. And in Alex Sawyer's case, he learns you don't even have to be guilty to get locked up.

Alex is a reprobate, he'll admit to that. Before winding up in Furnace, he was a bully and a thief, but he did not murder his best friend. No, that was the work of black-clad henchmen with ungodly strength and malevolent demeanor--and uncanny knowledge about Alex. It turns out they are employees of Furnace and their job is to ensure the prison maintains a steady supply of prisoners. It doesn't matter if the boys are innocent, since the public at large distrusts city youth so much. So Alex gets framed for murder and is banished to the bowels of the most notorious and feared prisons ever built. The world sees only a fortress built on top of solid rock, but beneath the impenetrable surface is a man-made chasm for young criminals.

If you think this novel is out to shine a spotlight on the injustices levied on the innocent, and how one kid can fight the system from the inside, think again. It's made pretty clear from the outset that there is no appeal process or fighting the system from the inside. Alex has no rights, no life, no hope. All he has left is a lifetime in Furnace in which his daily mission is to survive. And with the gang that's been in there since the prison's inception putting him in their sites, that's not going to be easy.

Furnace feels less like an actual prison than a living Hell. An underground Terrordome for boys might not be the most believable premise, but Smith lends enough credence to the situation to suspend disbelief. Plus, the horror elements give the story an otherworldly vibe. It's pretty difficult to imagine such a prison in our world, but it becomes really easy to imagine a world in which it does exist. As for life in the prison, there are moments that feel unflinchingly real, but there are other moments that seem to strain credulity. The gang of boys that's been there since the prison opened--the very gang responsible for so much of the violence that led to the prison's construction--are vicious, but they fade into the background until their presence is needed to provide extra tension. I'd imagine a gang like that would be much more tyrannical if left to their own devices, as the guards only seem to care about making sure the boys toil away through the day and stay in their cells at night.

The friendships and alliances Alex builds are the heart of the story, in my opinion, and really had me rooting for them as they try to survive and even try to find a way out of Furnace. But this book blatantly leaves things hanging in mid-air at the end. I have found I am less and less appreciative of cliffhangers in books. And considering there are three books in this series--maybe more--I have to wonder if the next book, Solitary, will have a similar type of ending.

November 16, 2011

Author Interview: Barry Napier & I talk comic books, collaborations--and Craigslist?

I read and reviewed the first issue of Birdwatching from Mars quite a few months ago. Shortly thereafter I interviewed its author, Barry Napier, but the subsequent e-mails went missing and it never got posted. Well, I finally tracked it down. Enjoy.


Gef: In the introduction to Birdwatching from Mars, you talked about how it started out as a failed attempt at a novel, then a failed attempt at a screenplay, before you realized the story would be best told as a comic book. But where did that initial kernel of inspiration come from for this story? Did you just want to do a post-apocalyptic tale, or was there a character or broader idea that had jumped into your mind?

Barry: This is a toughie to answer without giving too much of the plot away, but I'll do my best. I've always been an avid enthusiast of all things UFO and potentially extraterrestrial. And while I am admittedly not certain if I believe the "face on Mars/lost city and ruins on Mars" theories, they are certainly interesting. The central idea behind Birdwatching from Mars came from questions I often wondered: if there was life on Mars millions of years ago, how did they die off? What was their civilization like? Were they very similar to us (the "face" suggests so). And from there, I started wondering how our eventual demise would be similar or dissimilar to the end of life of Mars.

Gef: I read somewhere that the comic book was originally going to be in color rather than black and white, which actually seems to work as an amplifier for the bleakness of the setting. Was this a purposeful approach in the development or just a confluence of events that sent the book in that direction?

Barry: It was a coincidence. The book took so long to come to life that 2 of our original team members had to quit...they couldn't put the time in without being paid. I am incredibly fortunate that Luis (the artist) stuck with me and believes in the story as much as he does, because I think you're right: the black and white approach DOES seem to add to the book. The print and PDF versions of the book have very occasional splashes of color which we have tried to weave into the book in relevant ways.

Gef: Colonel Stone struck me as an interesting character to explore in this book, since military brass is notoriously two-dimensional when it comes to this kind of subject matter, no matter the medium. Did you peg him as the point-of-view character inside the bunker for that reason, or simply because he was the guy who would be privy to the most information about the outside world?

Barry: Both. And I'm glad you pointed out the cardboard persona most of these types have. Stone, to me, is going to end up being a major hinge in later developments to the story. I wanted a military guy that had the experience under his belt and the respect of everyone but, in the end, is as scared and flawed as everyone else. I have big plans for Stone.

Gef: Dante, the bald-headed brute with a helicopter blade as his machete, didn't get a whole lot of page time in the first issue, but in the time he was given showed the gruesome requirements of surviving above ground. How much carnage do you have planned for this guy, or are you using a different tact with the bad-ass character?

Barry: You'll get a glimpse of this answer in Issue 2. He's brutish and bad-ass for sure, but there are reasons for it. Dante will continue to be a huge part of the story but, like Stone, I think our initial opinion of him will change over time. In the case with Dante, it will happen a lot faster than you might expect.

Gef: How did the collaboration with Luis Puig come about?

Barry: I get this question a lot and still haven't found a way to shorten it, but I will try now. Birdwatching from Mars would have never become a comic book if I had not have answered a Craiglist call for comic book pitches. I pitched the idea and the person behind the small press (which later went belly-up) hooked me up with Luis. Luis loved the story from the start and has remained passionate about it from day one. Even after three, count 'em three, near-deaths to the project, he has stayed by my side with this project. I know that with just two of us working on it, the story is coming along slowly (both for us AND the public) but I truly think it WILL be worth it.

Gef: How much more difficult do you find getting a comic book published opposed to a novel?

Barry: Tremendously so. It's one of the reasons we decided to test it out on Kindle. After being rejected by the big comic presses, I quickly discovered it can be a nightmare to get a comic book up and running in a traditional way. The one plus to comics is that the response times tend to be faster, but that's about it. The query letter is also a beast to write...you're not just summing up a story, but an entire series and its pertinent characters, into a one page letter.

Gef: So ... short stories, novels, poetry--am I leaving out something?--and now a published comic book? What the bloody hell is next? Opera? Is there some other medium you've got your sights on?

Barry: Yes, my ballet show will debut next month. (That's a joke). This isn't though...maybe you recall those old PC games where it's all text based and you progress through a story based on choices you make? I am trying quite hard to think of some way to create an interactive story-telling blog like that. I have no idea how to even begin it, but it's an idea...

A big thanks to Barry again for taking part in this interview. Since we did this, his latest novel, The Bleeding Room, became available through Graveside Tales. You can click here to learn more about.

November 15, 2011

Rabid Reads: "The Neighborhood" by Kelli Owen


The Neighborhood

A little while back I won a signed copy of this Thunderstorm Books novella by up-and-coming author, Kelli Owen, from the Dreadful Tales (a great blog I've been visiting before it even went by that name). It was one of only 150 hard copies published, so if you can't get your hands on one of them, you'll have to bide your time for a digital release or something. Anyway ...

If you grew up in a very small town then this novella will strike a chord with you from the get-go. Everyone knows everyone else's business, in part because the town offers so little by way of distractions the townsfolk are left with no choice but to turn their attentions on each other. Gossip abounds, especially among the young.

In Kelli's story, the town's name is Neillsville and a teenage girl has gone missing. She's presumed by some to be a runaway, while others seem to revel in the idea she was murdered. Suspicions especially focus on the registered pedophile living in town. The town has no shortage of residents who become the usual suspects whenever something shady happens. It's like cow patty bingo: hardly high-brow entertainment, but if you win you feel like you accomplished something.

The story is told predominantly through the eyes of the town's children and teens. One boy discovers a piece of a finger, which his mother later finds in his jeans while doing laundry--explain that one to mommy dearest. A girl warily suspects the family cat has been killed by her sister. And a bus driver becomes the target of accusations and hearsay by the children he drives to school for no real reason beyond his unsettling appearance and surly demeanor. Kelli gives each kid a bright spotlight as they tell their piece of the tale, while the adults who surround them are prone to lump them all in the same category.

Each piece of the story becomes a shade darker than the one preceding it, and by the time the story ended I felt a dark cloud of ambiguity hanging over the town. The revelations that come from a couple of the characters are particularly disturbing, too.

The Neighborhood is a really good introduction to a world that begs to be revisited. If Neillsville becomes Kelli's Castle Rock over time, it's definitely a town I'm up to visit again in future stories.

November 14, 2011

Rabid Rewind: Unknown

Unknown
starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aiden Quinn, and Frank Langella
directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
screenplay by Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell
Warner Bros. Pictures (2011)

Liam Neeson is a lot like Denzel Washington, at least in one regard: he's a consummate actor who has a track record for starring in some very lackluster films, some just godawful. So, in which category does Unknown belong?

Liam plays Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist arriving in Berlin to take part in a conference on bio-technology. After arriving at his hotel alongside his wife, played by January Jones for some reason, he realizes he's forgotten his briefcase back at the airport. On the cab ride back, there's an accident and the cab careens off a bridge into the river below. He gets a concussion and wakes up in a hospital a few days later. When he finally reunites with his wife at the opening gala, she acts like she's never seen him before. Even crazier is when she introduces another man, played by Aiden Quinn, as her real husband. Say what? I know, but that's only the start.

After getting kicked out of the hotel, with little more than the cash in his pocket. Confused as to why his wife would pretend not to know him, and downright gobsmacked that someone has stolen his identity, he searches for answers by enlisting an aging private eye and the cab driver who pulled him from the sinking car. What ensues may be the most convoluted, insanely intricate thriller I've seen in years--and that's counting the Bourne movies.

Liam Neeson plays the sane man in an insane world part as well as he ever has. As for Aiden Quinn as his nemesis, he's about as good a choice for the role as I can think of, since there is something in even his most innocuous deliveries that makes his detestable. Supporting roles from Diane Kruger as the cab driver and Frank Langella as one of Liam's friends sought out to vouch for his true identity are welcome additions to the cast and lend a lot of credibility to this at times silly plot. But if there is a wink link to the cast, it has to be January Jones. I don't know how impressive she's been on Mad Men (I've never seen the show, myself), but her wooden, stilted performance was so distracting and unconvincing I am left to wonder how she got the part in the first place. Throw in the all-too-noticeable age difference between her and Liam Neeson, and her very presence on screen is discomforting.

The twists in the plot do create a fair bit of suspense as Liam is gallivanting about, but it takes a real suspension of disbelief to go along with this movie until the end. At least there is a level of satisfaction, a certain amount of "oh, that's why that happened" to lend some credibility to the outlandish moments. And if you can put up with January Jones' bad acting, the movie ain't that bad at all. A far cry from a Le Carre inspired film, but it serves its purpose.

November 11, 2011

Rabid Reads: "Hell and Gone" by Duane Swierczynski


Hell and Gone
262 pages
ISBN 9780316133296

I read the first book in the Charlie Hardie trilogy, Fun and Games, back in the spring and it wound up becoming my favorite book of the year so far. While I've been fortunate to read a lot of great books this year, Fun and Games easily remains in my top three and I wouldn't be surprised to see it stay there. But what about its sequel, Hell and Gone? After a powder keg of a debut, I had to wonder just how in the hell Hell and Gone would be able to make par, let alone surpass, the first book. Now, if you haven't read Fun and Games yet, stop reading this right now and go find a copy, because I'm about to spoil the ending of the first book.

Hell and Gone picks up almost immediately after the crazy shootout at the end of Fun and Games. Charlie Hardie is beat up, broken down, shot, and handcuffed to the gorgeous woman who tried really hard to have him killed. Law enforcement and paramedics arrive, separate the two, and whisk Charlie off in an ambulance. But before he knows what's happening, he's drugged and whisked off to a secret location, only to get drugged again and taken to an even more secret location. Eventually he's awakened and finds himself in a room with Mann, the woman who tried to kill him, the woman working for a secret organization of assassins called "The Accident People" (if you've listened to the diatribes Randy Quaid has spewed for the last year or two about celebrity killers, in his efforts to evade U.S. authorities, then you know the type I'm referring to).

So, Charlie wakes up with no idea how long he's been unconscious, or why he's even still alive. Mann confronts him and tells him he's been conscripted, in a sense, to work for the same organization she works for. Turns out he's sent way underground to a super-secret security facility known as Site 7734. Seem like a peculiar name for an underground prison? Well, punch those numbers into a calculator and turn the calculator upside-down. Do you get the significance now? Yeah, not exactly idyllic conditions.

It's at this point where the story really goes down the rabbit hole--literally if you think about it. Where Fun and Games was a high-octane shoot-'em-up through the Hollywood Hills, Hell and Gone felt closer to a psychological thriller akin to The Prisoner. The only thing missing was a giant amorphous bubble chasing Charlie down when he tried to escape. There's an intriguing, albeit convoluted, subplot involving one of his fellow inmates, but the main focus of this book had Charlie trying to figure out where he was and how to get out in order to exact his revenge and save his family. But at every turn a monkey wrench is thrown into the gears of his surroundings and it becomes a game of simple survival.

The action and suspense is as palpable and hot-to-the-touch as I expected, but it was the setting and focus of the story that really threw me. I will heartily give Duane Swierczynski all the credit in the word for using rocket fuel where other authors might use gasoline to propel his books forward, but the Kafka-ish underground prison was about the last place on Earth I expected Charlie Hardie to wind up. And what's even crazier is where Charlie winds up at the end of the book. I can't even wrap my head around that plot twist.

In one sense I was disappointed with Hell and Gone because it didn't go where I expected it to go after Fun and Games. Conventional thinking on my part, I suppose. So in another sense, I have to tip my hat to Swierczynski for taking a Gatling gun to my preconceived notions. At this point, I have no idea what to expect when the third book comes out in 2012. I just know that I am on board Charlie Hardie's insane bandwagon and can't wait to read Point and Shoot.

November 10, 2011

Chasing Tale (Digital Edition) for November 10th, 2011: Maurice Broaddus, Marian Coman, Harry Shannon ..

A sure-fire way to kill the Christmas spirit is to deal with some corporation's customer service over the phone. Good golly, I've done that a couple of times this week and it has nearly sent me into a morbid depression mixed with a feckless rage.
Oh well. I'm gonna try to stay positive heading into the holidays, because I do not want to be the grinch. We all have one in our little family circle or circle of friends, who rears his ugly head this time of year to try and dampen our efforts to make this Christmas special. Not gonna be me. I'm too fat and jolly to be that guy.

Anyway, here are the e-books I've downloaded lately:

King's War by Maurice Broaddus - Earlier in the year I read King's Justice, which was actually the second book in Maurice's Breton Court trilogy. I haven't read the first book, King Maker, just yet but I'll be getting to it by the end of the year. In the meantime, I've got myself a digital ARC of the third book here. If you like your urban fantasy with an Arthurian influence, this is one to check out.

Fingers and Other Stories by Marian Coman - Every now and again I try to read a book by an author who isn't American. You can't live on anglophones alone, ya know. So when given the chance to read this little collection of short stories from Marian, I jumped at the chance. Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews has already given it the thumbs up, so I'm optimistic I'll like it too.

No Shelter by Z. Constance Frost - I stumbled across this e-book early in the summer and thought it looked promising, so I threw it on the ol' wish list. The cover alone hooked me. What the heck is it about a gal with a sword? Anyway, if The Man Eating Bookworm has anything to say about it, then I'm really going to dig this e-book.

The Bleeding Room by Barry Napier - Barry has a new novel out via Graveside Tales and I snagged myself a review copy. Barry is one of those who has been slugging away in just about every medium he can manage, including his graphic novel Birdwatching from Mars. I'll have an interview with him about that book shortly, so stay tuned.

The House Eaters by Aaron Polson - Aaron had a special last week where, with a coupon code, this novel was available for free via Smashwords. I've already got a couple of Aaron's e-books on my to-be-read pile, but I can't pass up free, especially when I know the author can deliver. And, heck, even when it's not free it's a mere 99 cents. Almost free is almost as good.

Kill Them All (Dead Man #6) by Harry Shannon - The Dead Man series was recently snatched up by Amazon's new publishing house, and Harry's efforts are the latest in the adventures of Matt Cahill. I've been a fan of this series since it first came out, so I'm really looking forward to checking this one out and seeing where things go in the main storyline.

Red Penny Papers (Fall 2011 edition) by KV Taylor (editor) - For the last year or more, I've been reading the stories on Red Penny Papers through their website. Then, just by chance, I noticed they had a link to their latest edition available as an e-book on Smashwords--for free! It's already free to read via the website, but the added convenience of the e-book is fantastic. Go download this now!


That's what's on my hard drive. What books have you downloaded lately?

November 8, 2011

Rabid Reads: "The Gift of Illusion" by Richard Brown


The Gift of Illusion
self-published (2011)

Sometimes in life, it's very easy to envision the embodiment of evil. Some villainous people we see on the six o'clock news, found guilty of some crime or atrocity--take your pick--seem to be the very personification of evil. But, in reality, evil is not something so tangible. It's an idea. What if, however, evil did crop up to take physical form?

That's what happens in part through the course of The Gift of Illusion. There is a force at work, killing people one by one, leaving no real evidence of identity or motive--except for a small statuette. Each victim is burned--incinerated, really--and Detective Isaac Winters is baffled as to how the crimes are being committed and who could possibly be responsible. Winters is also dealing with a personal trauma related the murder of his wife during a home invasion. He and his young daughter survived, but even years later he is still emotionally scarred. And things just kind of bubble up to the surface for him with the introduction of a new case involving a young girl burned to death, and her parents missing.

Along with seeing the story through Isaac's eyes, we also see the villain's side of things, which is slowly revealed, first by way of the little girl discovering a small figurine in the park near her home. It becomes apparent quite quickly that the figurine houses the spirit of an evil force, one that possesses whoever holds the amulet, then moves on to a new victim, leaving the previous victim to ... well, be incinerated through spontaneous combustion.

Now, this is a premise that I should have gotten into, in fact I recall a Denzel Washington film called Fallen that involved a plot vaguely similar, with an angel passing through person to person via touch and taunting Denzel's character the whole time. I rather liked that movie, though it's been over a decade since I saw it last, but even then the movie barely held itself together. With The Gift of Illusion, I felt the story was having the same kind of problem keeping the entity's actions and motivations cohesive, even though the two aspects seemed to contradict at times.

I am still burned out on thrillers with detectives as the protagonist, but I keep trying. I thought the premise for this novel was strong and I wanted to give it a chance. Unfortunately, the novel as a whole had a bit too much minutia for my tastes. While the villain's side of things was handled efficiently and squeezed for every last drop of tension, I thought Winter's side of the story was bogged down in bits of family drama that didn't seem to go anywhere, and dialogue and inner monologue that slowed the pace too much for my liking. The book starts strong, but lags through the middle, and manages to finish strong. Although, the last chapter was monstrously long compared to all the preceding chapters, and I thought it should have been carved up into two or three chapters, if for nothing else than to make the story a bit more digestible.

If you are the kind of reader drawn to these types of stories, Richard's novel is one to consider, even for its flaws. But, for me, it didn't resonate and I really had to slog through it to get to the end.