Octavia Butler is best known as the award-winning author of some 15 novels of socially conscious speculative fiction. Sometimes associated with Afro-fOctavia Butler is best known as the award-winning author of some 15 novels of socially conscious speculative fiction. Sometimes associated with Afro-futurism, Butler often used marginalized protagonists to explore multi-cultural, hybrid societies that highlighted our own societal ills in unflinching ways.
Butler wrote very few short stories during her career, but seven of these have been collected in Bloodchild. Each story is accompanied by a brief afterword in which the author details its genesis. The collection is rounded out by two insightful essays on writing.
Each of the pieces is powerful, ideas and characters lingering in the reader’s mind for hours afterward. Stand-outs for me were “Bloodchild,” in which a boy must decide whether to serve as host for the larvae of an alien he’s spent his life serving; “Speech Sounds,” a post-apocalyptic vision of a violent world without human speech and the novelette “Amnesty,” in which a translator helps humans come to grips with their inevitable enfolding into an alien community.
Written in accessible, supple prose, these stories push us beyond our boundaries, expanding our understanding of what it means to be human...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the November 6, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Jesús Salvador Treviño is a trailblazer in Latino speculative aA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the November 6, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Jesús Salvador Treviño is a trailblazer in Latino speculative arts. His early career as an activist filmmaker documented the rise of the Chicano movement and the power of that work led to his becoming an award-winning television director, helming episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Bones, NYPD Blue and a host of other series.
Among his many creative endeavors are several books, including Return to Arroyo Grande, a short story collection that continues to explore the fictional border community established in The Fabulous Sinkhole and The Skyscraper That Flew.
The intertwined stories in this latest book dispense with some of the modern fads in genre fiction, taking an old-school approach to plotting reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. The inhabitants of the border town of Arroyo Grande find their lives shaken in unexpected ways as interdimensional rifts yank people and objects from one reality into another.
Yolanda Mendoza has to choose between immortal stewardship and her art career in “Where Lost Objects Reside.” In “Lost and Found,” her former boyfriend and nascent filmmaker “Choo Choo” Torres finds himself working at an amusement park where people disappear … and then are sometimes replaced by strange doppelgangers. During “A Tex Mex Night in Chelsea,” Yoli has to choose again between art and otherworldly artifact, and then her friend Jeannie gets a second chance at a long-dead love in “Builders of the New Templo Mayor.”
Of the remaining stories, the titular “Return to Arroyo Grande” stands out for me. A deceased matriarch appears to the scattered protagonists of the other tales, urging them to come home to fight against land developers looking to convert an old barrio into a gambling complex. The fantastic resolution to this problem harkens back to Treviño’s other collections in a richly rewarding way.
With this third book, Jesús Salvador Treviño is well on his way to crafting the sort of detailed fictional community that Rolando Hinojosa established in his Klail City Death Trip Series and in fact Hinojosa features briefly in one of the stories in a quick tip-of-the-hat cameo....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 30, 2015 edition of The Monitor
America is zombie-crazy, no doubt about it. “The Walking Dead”A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 30, 2015 edition of The Monitor
America is zombie-crazy, no doubt about it. “The Walking Dead” is more popular than ever, there are dozens of movies about the undead, hundreds of books and zombie walks are now officially a thing, with hundreds of grown men and women dressing up as brain-eaters and shuffling around in public. The “zombie apocalypse” has firmly ensconced itself in our collective imagination.
So it’s refreshing to come across a collection like “Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead,” the latest from the unique mind of David James Keaton, recently released by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. These nine stories and one novella brilliantly and with gonzo abandon infect every zombie cliché with literary insight before killing, burying and unearthing the resurrected remains for our delight.
The pieces, most occurring during or after the cataclysm, are awash in pop culture references and twitch with Keaton’s signature manic conversational style. My favorites were “Greenhorn,” which explores the question of what happens to zombies once they've shuffled their way down to the sea; “… and I’ll Scratch Yours,” in which specially treated undead appendages are sold as the perfect back scratcher; and “Zee Bee & Bee,” a witty yet heartfelt novella about a bed and breakfast that recreates the zombie apocalypse for discerning newlyweds.
Complete with a compelling introduction and an insane zombie movie drinking game, “Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead” is a must-have for undead enthusiasts everywhere....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 11, 2015 edition of The Monitor
John Skipp has won multiple awards for his horror writing, whA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 11, 2015 edition of The Monitor
John Skipp has won multiple awards for his horror writing, which ranges from the screenplay for “Nightmare on Elm Street 5” to the novelization of “Fright Night” and many influential books and anthologies.
His latest collection, “The Art of Horrible People,” features powerful stories that explore creation, art and fascinating characters through a careful balance of horror and humor. “Art is the Devil” lampoons artists who think they are transgressive by having the Devil himself crash a bloody, pretentious show. “Depresso the Clown” pits a woman afraid of clowns against a hapless birthday-party performer. “Rose Goes Shopping” plays with the zombie trope, getting us to root for the undead over some particularly disgusting humans.
Other stories play with notions of death and identity, with the conceit of creation as birthing, with the interplay between cinema and madness and the broken, gritty heart of Los Angeles. The collection concludes with two non-fiction articles: One that explores the importance of separating art from the artist; the other that reflects on the fleeting beauty of a beloved pet.
Written with a lean, exhilarating and cinematic style, “The Art of Horrible People” is the perfect marriage of droll commentary on the human condition and blood-spattered bleakness....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 11, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Brian Keene is a respected indie horror writer who has been aA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 11, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Brian Keene is a respected indie horror writer who has been anthologized with the likes of Stephen King. His latest, “Where We Live and Die: Stories about Writing,” brings together an interesting sub-set of his short fiction: Horror stories centered on or thematically related to writing.
The most powerful of these is “The Girl on the Glider,” in which the haunting of an author’s home by the ghost of a dead teen dovetails with health and family issues. The building sense of dread and the poignant resolution stayed with me long afterword.
In “Musings,” an author runs into three mythic women who push him into a delirium of productivity. “Golden Boy” tells the unexpectedly touching story of a young man who excretes, weeps and bleeds pure gold; the way his loved ones milk him is clearly a metaphor for the consequences of a writer’s success. Returning to the conceit of supernatural inspiration, “The Eleventh Muse” ends with a twist that breaks writer’s block in a vicious way.
“The House of Ushers” details a bloody escape from the depths of hell. It’s followed by a clever mini-history of the horror genre that uses titles to narrate its evolution: “The Revolution Happened While You Were Sleeping (A Summoning Spell) – Remixed.”
Capped by the non-fiction “Things They Don’t Teach You in Writing Class,” Keene’s compelling collection features his assured prose, careful plotting, and hard-hitting emotional blows. Highly recommended....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 4, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Emerging over the last couple of decades, the New Weird is a vA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the September 4, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Emerging over the last couple of decades, the New Weird is a vibrant, growing genre of speculative fiction which boasts some of the most compelling writing of the 21st century. Jeff VanderMeer, one of its foremost figures, has defined the New Weird as “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.”
Author Scott Nicolay, a former field archaeologist and teacher, set up some guidelines for his own forays into the New Weird in his “Dogme 2011,” stressing that stories should be atmospheric, that setting should be a vital element, that the normal tropes and monsters of speculative fiction should be avoided. Importantly, he cited Caitlin R. Kiernan’s rule of thumb: “dark fiction dealing with the inexplicable should, itself, present to the reader a certain inexplicability.”
This disciplined approach to the New Weird makes Nicolay’s first collection, Ana Kai Tangata, a compelling and unsettling read. Subtitled “Tales of the Outer, the Other, the Damned, and the Doomed,” volume pulls from the author’s wide experience and reading, presenting the reader with eight masterfully written narratives in which hapless protagonists have the cover of the cosmos ripped off for a brief glimpse at the vast, inscrutable indifference waiting just beyond.
The collection opens with the powerfully disturbing “alligators,” in which a New Jersey teacher’s life-long nightmare about a flooded quarry collides with urban legends and the Navajo traditions of his wife’s family to create a growing sense of unease that ends in an abrupt moment of obscure, fleeting revelation (a narrative pattern that undergirds quite a few New Weird tales, almost like the genre’s own twisted iteration of the Monomyth).
“The Bad Outer Space” is an exquisitely controlled tale narrated by a young boy who is gradually exposed to (and arguably corrupted by) normally invisible worm-like creatures entering our world from elsewhere to infest the people of his neighborhood.
“Eyes Exchange Bank,” first published in the anthology “The Grimscribe’s Puppets” (a tribute to Thomas Ligotti that won the Shirley Jackson award), is an amazingly constructed edifice of inexplicable dread. It is sandwiched between my two favorites, “Ana Kai Tangata” and “Phragmites,” both of which blend archaeology and hints of indigenous mythology (on Easter Island and in the Dinétah or Navajo Reservation) with broken male protagonists who find themselves thrust into deadly liminal spaces.
A similarly adrift man, in search of punk rock and easy sex, finds instead a crumbling abandoned convent teeming with unearthly amphibians in “The Soft Frogs.” Stranded in an acquaintance’s apartment in a strange building across the street from a stranger temple, the disaffected voyeur of “Geschäfte” finds himself and the edifice around him changing inexplicably.
Noir and New Weird collide in the novella “Tuckahoe,” which reads like the unholy child of Jim Thompson and Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” Detective Donny Cantú is investigating a horrible highway accident that has left three people dead and dismembered. The problem is that there are seven arms on the scene, not six, and that unexpected extra limb isn’t quite human …
Punctuated by the haunting art of David Verba, Scott Nicolay’s stories are like tenuous beams of light from a miner’s helmet that briefly illuminate grotesque, ineffable and prodigious forms in the dark, avid caverns of the unknown. A stunning debut from a new master of the macabre....more
In Stray Dogs: Writing from the Other America, editor William Hastings brings together stories, poems and songs by 19 authors who write about AmericaIn Stray Dogs: Writing from the Other America, editor William Hastings brings together stories, poems and songs by 19 authors who write about America at the margins — the America of the down-and-out and forgotten.
Each piece in the collection is powerful in its own way, speaking truths in unflinching, unadulterated language. I have my favorites, of course. “M-F Dog” by Vicki Hendricks tells of a young man whose plan to buy a dog as a sort of “chick magnet” takes some unusual twists and turns. Will Vlautin’s “Lorna” is a heart-breaking study of impotent maternal devotion. “Johanna Stull” by Daniel Woodrell (author of “Winter’s Bone”) explores the ramifications of ugly justice against a man who occupies “the throne in the shadows” in a rural community. Joseph Haske sets his portrait of men capable of both great violence and amazing compassion against cold streams teeming with fish in the pre-dawn dark in “Smelt.” And Sherman Alexie chants a haunting conjuration of all the people lost to him in “One Stick Song.” ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 8, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Another work that will leave ghostly after-images in your soul is ScA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 8, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Another work that will leave ghostly after-images in your soul is Scores, the first collection of short stories from Robert Paul Moreira, local professor and managing editor of the literary journal RiverSedge.
These 14 pieces are up-close snapshots of lives made hard by broken promises, bad luck, benighted choices and accidents of birth. Yet amid the squalor and despair, hope blossoms bravely, thrusting up through the cracks of a blue-collar world and Moreira’s deft pen reveals his smirking compassion for the souls that litter these pages.
The stories range from darkly humorous to poignant, with a spectrum of bleakness in between, but a few were real stand-outs for me. In “The Chac-Mool” a man hurries to bring his dying father a deeply symbolic gift. “Cobb and Me” brings the titular baseball legend back to butt-kicking life in the mind of a teen. A couple squanders a final chance at rekindling the flame in “Chiles Rellenos.” And the small, momentary victory promised in “You’ll Hit It over Anzaldúas Bridge” closes out the collection on a chest-tightening high note.
Terse, drained of dross and pretense by Moreira’s hard-boiled yet literary style, these stories will shock you and break your heart....more
The Pulse between Dimensions and the Desert is the heart-wrenching first book by Ríos de la Luz, out from from Ladybox, the new imprint of Broken RiveThe Pulse between Dimensions and the Desert is the heart-wrenching first book by Ríos de la Luz, out from from Ladybox, the new imprint of Broken River Books. This collection of prose-poems and short fiction is a powerful exploration of Latina womanhood, shifting geographies, perspectives, languages and genre in a masterfully managed kaleidoscope. De la Luz often uses the trappings of speculative fiction (time travel, multiple dimensions, aliens) to approach subtle and complex human experiences in novel ways to devastating effect. Bursting with love, anger, hurt, hunger and unquenchable fire, “The Pulse between Dimensions and the Desert” will fling you beyond yourself and then kiss your shattered soul....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 13, 2015 edition of The Monitor
You will not soon forget Black Cloud, the debut collection byA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 13, 2015 edition of The Monitor
You will not soon forget Black Cloud, the debut collection by Juliet Escoria. Razor-sharp and brutally honest, like Sylvia Plath in the midst of a meth comedown, these short tales of self-destruction and survival seek not to preach or shame but to stare unflinchingly at the reality of a series of 20-something women, broken since childhood, who must work through a skein of debilitating states (each represented by a story): resentment, confusion, apathy, guilt, disgust, spite, revenge, fear, powerlessness, self-loathing, envy and shame.
Poetic, poignant and powerful, these pieces—women who eschew good but unremarkable men so they can punish themselves with monsters, those who seek quietus in drugs or sex, those who have overcome but who live with the ghosts of abuse and degradation—will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Keep your eye on Juliet Escoria: she’s got chops and staying power....more
A TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 30, 2015 edition of The Monitor.
First, for the uninitiated, a quick definition of weird fictionA TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 30, 2015 edition of The Monitor.
First, for the uninitiated, a quick definition of weird fiction: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
That’s how H.P. Lovecraft, the master of the uncanny dark, defined the genre for which he’d be forever known. Many modern writers exploring the genre have in fact used Lovecraft’s literary universe (now in the public domain) as a sort of gruesome sandbox for their own delightful tales.
One of the most exciting voices at play in that universe is that of Molly Tanzer. Her 2012 collection A Pretty Mouth is a delightful blend of subtle, unnerving horror and historically contextualized debauchery, substituting excesses of the flesh for the violence more commonly found in such tales.
Consisting of four short stories and a novella, A Pretty Mouth gives us in reverse chronological order a multi-generational look at the Calipash family, a noble English house with dark and twisted predilections and pedigree.
The Edwardian-era “A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs” details the aid an industrious valet renders Alastair Fitzroy, the 27th Lord Calipash, whose sister has become addicted to the secretions of an unusual cephalopod. “The Hour of the Tortoise” is a kinky Gothic exploration of patriarchal repression of intelligent women and the lengths to which they are driven by this marginalization.
Incest, black magic and blurred identities are just some of the themes of the slyly narrated “Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins.” Then in the titular novella, the stereotypical story of prep-school life is turned playfully on its head, as Tanzer explores the mischief of Calipash twins in 17th century using an inventive mixture of period language and modern slang. The final tale, “Damnatio Memoriae,” is a tongue-in-cheek sword-and-sandals tale of Romans in first-century Britain that shows us the founding of the bizarre Calipash clan.
Tanzer expertly weaves period-accurate language and cultural elements with mischievous mores and hints at cosmic darkness. Every story is wickedly wonderful and you’ll be left wanting to learn more about the debauched and gifted Calipashes....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the December 12, 2014 edition of The Monitor
The latest collection from South Texas professor and award-winA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the December 12, 2014 edition of The Monitor
The latest collection from South Texas professor and award-winning author Brian Allen Carr is The Shape of Every Monster Yet to Come. The book opens with a mother telling her son to go into the backyard and fetch her a stick with which to beat him. When he returns with a magnolia flower instead, she tells him, “I guess I’ll use my fists.”
This introductory vignette sets the tone for the following series of brutal tales. The reader stares on in horrified wonder as a parade of disaffected, broken, often sociopathic men flail and flounder in a bleak world, often unable to connect to each other or the women they objectify. Humiliation and conflict are carried well beyond the limits of sanity or the ability of the flesh to abide. The death of a violent loved one leaves a sibling in perpetual limbo, while in a pair of stories the passing of a young man brings guilt to the surviving friend who was encroaching on the departed’s romantic territory.
Though most of the pieces are unexpectedly short, they stay with you for a long time, like an unexpected punch that drops you in seconds to the concrete. A few glitter with the biblical ferocity that characterizes Carr’s public reading: “We All Become Something,” which I have heard him perform, remains one of the single most affecting portraits of a violent man I have ever read.
Amid the bleakness, there are hints of fleeting joy, of course: a husband and wife who playfully sword-fight in a curio shop in Nuevo Progreso, a man who wishes everyone “sweet dreams” regardless of time of day as if such a mantra could undo wrongs. Above all, however, the steady drawl of one of the most honest writers in Texas will be there as you peruse the darkness of existence with him, whispering “[Life] can’t dance if there’s no music. It’s not going to smile just because it sees me.”
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 31, 2014 of The Monitor.
Cameron Pierce has carved out an award-winning niche for himself as onA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 31, 2014 of The Monitor.
Cameron Pierce has carved out an award-winning niche for himself as one of the premier authors of bizarro fiction, his talent recognized by the likes of Lloyd Kaufman and Piers Anthony. As an editor and publisher, however, he has explored all sorts of dark and darkly humorous genre, and in his latest collection of short stories, he gives readers a taste of just how versatile and masterful his prose can be.
Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon centers thematically on Pierce’s well documented love of fishing, an activity that permeates the plot of every one of the 13 tales to some extent or another. Though each story stands alone, several of them are knitted together by the appearance of an unsettlingly humanoid fish with the gift of speech and an inscrutable purpose.
The collection begins with an eponymous piece in which a man and his wheelchair-ridden grandmother go for one last tragic fishing trip together. This is followed by the unexpectedly beautiful “Sway,” which tells of the brief but transformative connection between a United States Marine and a Vietnamese fish farmer. In “Drop the World,” a young female boxer’s attempts at reuniting with her little sister push her to unfortunate choices.
Any boy whose father took him fishing will find much to love in “Short of Lundy,” a humorous look at the tall tales dads will tell. The bizarro-flavored “Help Me” and “The Bass Fisherman’s Wife” use the transformation of human to fish to explore the dynamics of family relationships. The twisted but moving ends of “Three Fisherman” are balanced by the return of the killer humanoid fish in “Floodland.”
A similar finned creature taunts the protagonist of “Let Love in,” a down-on-his-luck schmo whose determination to “endure anything” for his girl is put to the ultimate test and in “Easiest Kites There Are to Fly,” a man is followed by the “devil fish” once his actions result in the death of his father. It was at this point that I began to see the piscine humanoid killer as a symbol for the dark, unknowable depths of the human psyche, which occasionally spill beyond their margins to flood our lives with despair.
Of course, that’s my take. They work well as inexplicably horrifying monsters, also.
Flirting with novella length, the penultimate tale, “The Snakes of Boring,” is a raucous, Tarantinoesque romp featuring Rob Zombie rednecks, Robert Rodriguez action pieces and featuring the flakiest striped pangasius in America. Someone make this into a movie, stat.
The collection closes with the heart-wrenching (and possibly autobiographical?) “California Oregon,” in which two different versions of a young man’s life are alternatively narrated, each depending on which parent he chooses to live with upon his folks’ divorce.
Overall, Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon uses the tropes of weird, bizarro and horror fiction to dig deep into the wrongs we do each other, no matter how deep our love might go. I suspect that Pierce has written his most personal work to date; his dedicating the book to his parents adds nuances to the stories that a reader cannot help notice and identify with.
So grab your rod and pull up a lawn chair. Cameron Pierce wants to take you fishing. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 17, 2014 edition of The Monitor
From time to time a writer of dark fiction will tap into my speA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 17, 2014 edition of The Monitor
From time to time a writer of dark fiction will tap into my specific fears and weaknesses in a way that makes reading his work both terrifying and exciting. Searching for the perfect “scary” book for October, I stumbled across notice of the latest from native Texan Stephen Graham Jones (who won the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Award for Fiction in 2005). Intrigued by the cover and title, and encouraged by the advance praise, I picked up a copy. And, wow.
After the People Lights Have Gone Off, released by Dark House Press in September, is a collection of 15 horror stories, each accompanied by a striking illustration by Luke Spooner. The stories are masterful explorations of the terror lying in wait within the mundane, disturbing juxtapositions of dreadful and quotidian. Featuring relatively little gore, the collection manages to tap into emotional, psychological fears, many related to our relationships with friends and loved ones.
I devoured every story greedily, but stand-outs were “Brushdogs,” about a father-son hunting trip that comes untethered from reality; “This Is Love,” in which a young gay couple on a camping trip face a tragic misunderstanding; “The Black Sleeve of Destiny,” belonging to a defective and diabolical hoodie; the very Twilight-Zone vibe of “The Spider Box,” in which a family accidentally rearranges the geometry of a cardboard box so that it opens an eldritch portal; every father’s nightmare about his children comes true in “Snow Monsters,” with a moving twist; and finally the eponymous haunting tale of a couple living, though not precisely alone, in the house where the wife was paralyzed.
Jones’ writing is precise and mostly terse, his narrators’ voices spot-on. Reading his work, I found myself getting swept up, drawn inexorably toward a place that was familiar yet utterly unnerving. I wanted to put the book down, but I couldn’t. That’s the hallmark of great horror....more