This is a smashing collection. I want to say many things about it -- how each story is well chosen, each completely different from one another, yet al...moreThis is a smashing collection. I want to say many things about it -- how each story is well chosen, each completely different from one another, yet all live in that terrifying, unique universe Laird Barron has birthed -- but no time for thoughtful gushing today. Just wanted to give The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron a big fat 5 star rating immediately. I will better review in a couple of days.(less)
Another cracking good read from Stephen King. This one's a straight-up thriller with no supernatural frills, and generally follows the classic "retire...moreAnother cracking good read from Stephen King. This one's a straight-up thriller with no supernatural frills, and generally follows the classic "retired cop can't let his last case go" template. But thanks to King's wholly uncanny ability to draw rich, humane characterizations -- even for doomed bit players, but most importantly for the crazed titular foe -- it's more memorable than most boilerplate thrillers. Also? Completely impossible to put down.
I have a couple of observations (reservations?): Sometimes, while reading Mr. Mercedes, I forgot I was reading Stephen King. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Maybe it was the "ripped from the headlines" crimes; maybe it was the lack of anything supernatural, or for that matter, particularly "King-y" about it. Okay, there are a couple of gross-out moments that make you go "oh, right, King." But it definitely lacks his usual touch of the nostalgic/elegaic. It doesn't take much time to ponder. It's nonstop.
In short, King has done his usual out-of-the-ballpark trick on yet another bestselling genre. I'm only going four stars rather than five because I like a little supernatural with my crime, but if edge-of-your-seat-stopping-a-madman thrillers are your thing, welcome to your new summer beach-read. (less)
This noir piece of weirdness takes as its touchstone "The Maltese Falcon," a film I have (shock! gasp!) never actually seen. However, that in no way l...moreThis noir piece of weirdness takes as its touchstone "The Maltese Falcon," a film I have (shock! gasp!) never actually seen. However, that in no way lessened my enjoyment of this tale about a creepy residential hotel, a tragic, ghostly love triangle, obsession and blood magic. Meikle has a talent for creating fully fleshed-out characters, who, even in the shorter novella format, invite you to care about their fates. Broken Sigil was so good I wanted it to be longer so I could spend more time in it -- maybe next I'll take on one of Meikle's longer works! (And maybe I'll give "The Maltese Falcon" a whirl.)(less)
A Season in Carcosa is an exceptionally well-edited tribute anthology in honor of Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories, a s...moreA Season in Carcosa is an exceptionally well-edited tribute anthology in honor of Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories, a story cycle about an accursed play, set in "dim Carcosa," which, when merely read (never staged!), leaves madness and chaos in its wake. Chambers' "KiY" stories, though there are only five, left a small but persistent imprint on the weird, influencing Lovecraft, to start with, whose Necronomicon owes not a little to that "cursed book"-within-a-book trope.
But on to Pulver's collection: a couple of the tales are a bit mannered for me; for example "The Theater and its Double" by Edward Morris, which marries Artaud's surrealism and "Theater of Cruelty" with the infamous play. I've never much liked the Surrealists, and, though Morris does slip in some beautiful language, that particular story felt bloated and self-indulgent, containing as it does both an imagined version of the play, and "Artaud's" musings on art, politics, morphine, dreams, and the terrors of the Yellow King. Also, Gary McMahon's "it sees me when I'm not looking," which tells a fine tale, but does so with purposefully mangled punctuation and random capitalization, an artistic decision which only made me want to copy-edit it.
However, the bulk of the stories evoke the drear decadence of "dead Carcosa" with its pallid masks and its tattered King to uneasy perfection. R.W. Chambers' vision of cosmic horror, though Victorian in its origins, holds up well to contemporary scenarios; issues of mental health and the media's omnipotent hold on our minds underpin many of the stories in the collection. Highlights include "Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars," by Gemma Files, in which a Physicians for Human Rights forensic anthropologist investigating a massacre pit unwittingly unearths something still more dreadful; and Joel Lane's "My Voice is Dead," whose narrator, a devout Catholic losing his religion and dying of cancer, finds faith in Carcosa on the internet. And addressing media manipulation of our collective sanity, we have a fantastic trifecta: John Langan's "Sweetums," in which a struggling actress gets more than she bargained for when hired for an experimental film; in Don Webb's dark and hilarious "Movie Night at Phil's," the wrong videotape puts a gruesome end to a family tradition; and my favorite in the book, Cody Goodfellow's "Wishing Well," in which a mentally unstable former child actor traces his problems back to his role in "Golden Class," a cult children's show something like "Romper Room," only with a lot more creepy masks, ritualistic games, and marionette "visitors" from the "Golden City of Carcosa."
I only stumbled over the cult of the King in Yellow by way of its interbreeding with the Lovecraft mythos, and initially I was surprised so many gifted artists are still influenced by Chambers' little-known mythical play-within-a-play. But it certainly spawned one disturbing and compelling collection. It seems as though Chambers' tales may be having a cultural moment -- HBO's slow-burn creepshow "True Detective" has referenced Carcosa and the King in Yellow several times in just the first four episodes. Not sure where they are going with it, but I'm hooked. Maybe the time is right for the return of the King?
This book opens with one of the coolest stories I've read in awhile: the short, brutal, and kind of hilarious "Kids." Within just a few paragraphs, La...moreThis book opens with one of the coolest stories I've read in awhile: the short, brutal, and kind of hilarious "Kids." Within just a few paragraphs, Langan had me both howling with uneasy laughter and wondering if he was plundering my mind for its deepest fears, and that's very much the way to my heart. (Other than through my chest, natch.)
The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies has been on my TBR list ever since it came out last spring. I can only say I wish I'd gotten to it sooner, because this collection is as close to perfect as it gets. There are no bad stories here, not even any "meh" ones. Just a series of really inventive tales, well told.
Of course I had favorites. But I had several. Besides "Kids," which I won't spoil by even hinting at its contents, there was also "Technicolor," a wild (and darkly genius) take on "The Masque of the Red Death," which may have inspired me to re-evaluate Poe. (I secretly find him awfully florid.) There are two new-Lovecraftian tales: "The Shallows," a slice-of-life story about a man and his mutant crab, going about their business in a world where the Old Ones now control reality; and the truly disturbing "City of the Dog," which takes as its inspiration HPL's underused ghouls (think "Pickman's Model"), and turns Albany into a carnivorously haunted blot on the landscape. Finally, the closing, and longest, tale in the collection is "Mother of Stone," in which a bloody pre-historic rite is accidentally resurrected at an otherwise homey Hudson Valley inn. Also, do not miss Langan's story notes (which illuminate several of the stories in unexpected ways), and Laird Barron's hilarious afterword.
Let's start here: shock for shock's sake as a genre has kind of lost its shock value. While I'm sure all of these stories were considered in-your-face...moreLet's start here: shock for shock's sake as a genre has kind of lost its shock value. While I'm sure all of these stories were considered in-your-face transgressive in their initial releases (some were even banned), after a decade of torture porn in the theaters -- piles of sharp objects and body parts on the "Hostel"/"Saw" franchise model, the puke-inducing zenith of which has to be the Human Centipede Trilogy -- we have become comfortably numb to mindless, graphic horror. Splattering fluids, unfathomably unsafe sex games, torture, mutilation, necrophilia, cannibalism. . . . yawn. I mean really, wasn't all that just, like, a clip from next week's episode of "The Walking Dead"? (I kid. I enjoy TWD very much. I don't, however, take it very seriously, and still find it unreal that it's one of the most popular shows on TV.)
In some ways, this collection is an interesting reflection of its times, as it lingers on many of the subversive subcultures of the millennium years. There was a free-floating cloud of nihilism, a lot of pain and anger bubbling up as self-mutilation in the name of self-expression and mind-expansion, the brute reality of AIDS for everybody, Y2K, whatever. It's no surprise this era bred a particularly dark brand of horror story.
But these transgressions today? No longer so transgressive, and many of these stories from splatterpunk's heyday seem dated, almost quaint, even as they try so very hard to shock. The boundaries having moved, these stories now have to rely on good writing to keep the reader's interest, and there are about four, maybe five actually good stories out of nineteen:
The collection, wisely, starts off strong. George R.R. Martin's "Meathouse Man" from 1976 (!) still retains its visceral shock, maybe because the idea at its core is a still-fresh twist on the undead genre, and one that's deeply psychologically disquieting. And it's George Martin . . . we know he can write. But Horror George is not much like jolly old "kill ALL the Starks" George. I mean, some of his short pieces make the Red Wedding look like a baby shower. This is one of those.
Next up: Joe R. Lansdale's "Night They Missed the Horror Show," a hair-raising no-good-very-bad night in the Deep South story that makes "Deliverance" look like a weekend in Ibiza. But again -- established writer in his element. Sociopolitical commentary. A real, meaty story.
The others I really enjoyed, if that's what one calls it, were Bentley Little's outrageously, sneeringly cruel "Pop Star in the Ugly Bar," which still works because pop stars and audiences never change (the author's note on this one is quite interesting); Elizabeth Massie's "Abed," another unique zombie story, and possibly the most tragic (yet repulsive) piece of shock fiction ever; and Charlee Jacob's "The Spirit Wolves," which captures the modern primitive ethos in a dark fairy tale about fur and teeth.
So what's not to like? Obviously it's pointless to expect to "enjoy" this kind of extreme horror, but I do expect to find the pleasure of a well-crafted tale, one with a point, if you will. Unfortunately, many of these are just badly crafted excuses to pile shock-upon-viscera-upon-snuff-club. Also? Full of cliched characters, riddled with plot holes and without much in the way of any profound insights to ponder. And I'm not even going to touch the misogyny and sexual violence. I try not to conflate sexual politics and fiction, but even I became uncomfortably aware of a pattern. (There are, however, a few stories where the women come out on top; John Everson's "Every Last Drop" had the potential to be a clever morality play on the dangers of anonymous sex, until I noticed a fairly large logic hole. You might enjoy it if you don't pick that out.)
There's probably a cultural historian's thesis in the themes of Millennium-era Horror Fiction, but I'm too tired to write it. Basically, this collection contains a small number of really good stories, a whole lot of "meh" stories that just didn't hold together or were ridiculously predictable, some that were just violent, juvenile prurience, and some that were offensive in a purely literary sense. (One author cited Clive Barker's truly masterful story "Dread" as the inspiration for her tale. Clive should be wildly offended.)
So I didn't love it. But it was like $1.99 on Kindle, and it's a curious time capsule of millennial nihilism and hopelessness. (less)