Words In: Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias

Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias was published by Broken River Books late in 2015. A quick, propulsive tale packed with violence and threat, in which a gang-connected drug dealer on the dark side of Austin, Texas receives a warning from a group of rivals, who might also be demons. Fernando tries to find the right path through a dangerous milieu that stretches across the border into Mexico, venturing there and back again.

gabinoiglesias-zerosaints

I don’t know who came up with the phrase “Barrio noir,” but it fits. Some readers have complained about the amount of Spanish or “Spanglish” mixed into the text, but I found this helped create a sense of atmosphere, of partial foreignness or at least separateness from the dominant American culture more familiar to many of us. It allowed me to believe I was seeing through Fernando’s eyes, and let me feel privy to his thoughts.

Visceral and tough, poetic and beautiful yet oh-so-dark. Zero Saints is a highly recommended thrill ride, artfully told, and sets Gabino Iglesias apart from the bulk of his neo-noir contemporaries. I can’t wait to see what this guy does next!

Zero Saints on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27230788-zero-saints

Zero Saints on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-Saints-Gabino-Iglesias/dp/1940885337

Advertisements

Words In: Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt

One of the highlights of this year has been Michael Wehunt’s debut collection, Greener Pastures.

greenerpastures

On Goodreads, I said:
“Often we judge first collections by a lower standard, and we’re willing to excuse a few weak or clumsy stories in the mix because it’s the writer’s first try. Once in a while, though, a writer emerges on the scene already so capable in craft and so fully developed artistically, they manage to immediately surpass the efforts of most of those who’ve been doing this for years, or even decades. Wehunt focuses the camera eye closely upon his subjects, and lingers obsessively, scrutinizing detail, weighing nuance and exploring delicate, varied and sometimes unexpected aspects of feeling. These are sensitive, serious and strange tales of real literary achievement, executed with real confidence. With a debut like GREENER PASTURES, the notion of applying diminished expectations to a debut collection seems not only unnecessary, but ridiculous.”

I haven’t talked to a single person who’s been anything less than very impressed with this book. I’m sure it will be regarded as one of the most significant books of 2016.

Greener Pastures on Goodreads:
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29632862-greener-pastures

Greener Pastures on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Greener-Pastures-Michael-Wehunt-ebook/dp/B01CEYVMU6

Words In: Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

One thing I stopped doing last year and would like to start again is posting reviews, or at least brief comments, about the books I’ve recently read. I’ll start with posting a few of the books I recently finished and already reviews on Goodreads and/or Amazon.

First off, then…

Earlier this year, one of my favorite writers released her second collection. That writer is Livia Llewellyn, and her book is Furnace.

liviallewellyn-furnace

On Goodreads I wrote:
“Darkly wonderful, powerful and lushly poetic writing. Livia Llewellyn creates her own genre merging the erotic, the dreamlike fantastic, and the blackly horrific. In only her second book, she’s working at such an amazingly high level, and has already become a powerful magicians of the word. Livia Llewellyn ranks among my very favorite writers.”

Also, I discuss my reaction to Furnace at greater length on Scott Nicolay’s The Outer Dark podcast, in episode 33. I talk about Furnace and other “News of the Weird” in between the two interviews, so somewhere in the middle. Link HERE.

Furnace on Word Horde:
http://wordhorde.com/books/furnace/

Furnace on Goodreads:
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28815195-furnace

Furnace on Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Furnace-Livia-Llewellyn/dp/1939905176

10 Notable Reads of 2013

2013 was an exceptional year for weird and horror fiction, especially single author collections. I believe I discovered more interesting new writers than in any past year I can remember. Here are ten books I found especially noteworthy.

Barron-BeautifulThing

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

For the past few years, I’ve considered Laird Barron’s the most compelling work in the loosely affiliated genres of horror, the weird, and dark fantasy. Again and again I refer back to his earlier collections The Imago Sequence and Occultation, both full of artful yet readable stories told in powerful, striking language, each revealing a dark and chilling cosmic menace underlying our familiar reality. Barron’s latest collection explores similar territory — some stories even extend histories or settings established in earlier tales — and the best pieces, such as “Blackwood’s Baby,” rank at the very top of his oeuvre. This is the only book I read twice during 2013.

Langan

The Wide, Carnivorous Sky by John Langan

I certainly knew Langan’s work before this, from many anthologies and “year’s best” lists, but this new collection demonstrates Langan deserves to be considered at the highest level of modern horror writers. “Technicolor” is the narrative of a teacher telling his class about Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” both clever and gripping. The collection ends with a new novella “Mother of Stone,” less experimental than some of Langan’s ‘other work here (though it’s told in second person perspective, which is rare). It’s one of the few truly outstanding works of fiction I read this year, worthy of its length, and truly dreadful and frightening. With such a dexterous and confident collection, Langan rises in my estimation to rank among the most compelling writers now working.

atfearsaltar

At Fear’s Altar by Richard Gavin

Similar to what I just said of Langan, Gavin’s latest book boosts him up several notches toward the top of my list of most interesting writers. I gave At Fear’s Altar a detailed review previously, so here I’ll just say this is one of the very best books of the year. If you’re not reading Richard Gavin, you should be, and this would be a great place to start.

grimbscribes

The Grimscribe’s Puppets edited by Joseph S. Pulver Sr.

I should disclaim that a story of my own appears in this book. I include it anyway, because I truly believe it to be one of the books of the year, even disregarding my own work. This anthology is a tribute to Thomas Ligotti, one of the great and influential names in dark fiction in recent decades. I found too many great stories here to list them all… a mix of work by the obvious names like Langan, Gavin, Thomas and Tremblay, along with others less established such as Livia Llewellyn, Nicole Cushing and Scott Nicolay. Even such a list omits stories of five-star quality. I would prize this book, and rank it as the year’s best anthology, even if my story didn’t appear within.

Jagannath

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

This is the first English language collection by a wonderful Swedish writer of weird fantasy. The stories shift from mostly naturalistic realism with a hint of the strange, gradually becoming stranger and more fantastic, until by the end Tidbeck is exploring a truly bizarre world, at once whimsical and frightening. The best works of fiction stick in the mind well after the reader has moved onto other things, and Jagannath wedged itself in my brain as stubbornly as anything I’ve read in recent years. Impressive, inspiring and strongly recommended.

Astoria Cover

Astoria by S.P. Miskowski

I wrote a full review here. Astoria is another angle on Miskowski’s Skillute cycle, this novella following Ethel Sanders, one of the primary characters in Knock Knock, the first novel to appear in this cycle. This is my favorite thing yet from Miskowski, a writer who certainly deserves watching.

Every House is Haunted

Every House is Haunted by Ian Rogers

Full review here. Rogers’s first collection shows great improvement over the years covered. The later stories, such as “The Secret Door,” are very impressive. I look forward with interest to his future efforts.

HairSideFleshSide

Hair Side, Flesh Side by Helen Marshall

Many of the stories in Hair Side, Flesh Side, the debut collection of Canadian weird fantasist Helen Marshall, focus on books, libraries and manuscripts. Hair Side, Flesh Side presents a nice mix of straightforward emotions in realistic settings, balanced against off-kilter fantastic elements or surreal impossibilities. I love that these stories show great respect and affection for the world of literature, of books and stories, authors and libraries.

16110719

Chick Bassist by Ross E. Lockhart

This was the “fun, weird read” of the year for me. Full review here. It’s a book full of the dysfunction and crazy ego and hedonism of rock and roll. I hope Ross Lockhart gives us more along these lines.

fungi

Fungi edited by Orrin Gray & Silvia Garcia-Moreno

This anthology included especially strong stories by Barron, Langan and E. Catherine Tobler, as well as other good stuff mentioned in my full review here. There was a bit of unevenness in some of the stories, but if like me you believe a collection or anthology should be judged by its best stories rather than by its weakest, you’ll find Fungi worth checking out.

***

That’s my top ten for 2013.

I’m also tempted to include Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, which was a worthwhile read (more fantasy than horror, despite being a sequel to one of the great modern horror novels, The Shining), but I figure if King’s work is something you might enjoy, you already know about it. I’d rather highlight a few books some readers might have overlooked.

My list does not include several books I have reason to believe I would enjoy, but haven’t yet had a chance to read, or at least finish. Several that come to mind include Holes for Faces by Ramsay Campbell, Member by Michael Cisco, Tales of Jack the Ripper by Ross Lockhart, Rumbullion by Molly Tanzer, Shadows Edge edited by Simon Strantzas, Crandolin by Anna Tambour, North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud, Staring into the Abyss by Richard Thomas, and Remember Why You Fear Me by Robert Shearman. I may have forgotten to list other notable releases of 2013, in which case I apologize. My list is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely to highlight certain items I think readers may want to consider.

Recent Reads Quickly Mentioned

I’ve read so many great books lately, I’ve decided to quickly mention some of the most notable. I’ll probably offer expanded opinions of at least some of these soon.

At Fear’s Altar by Richard Gavin
At Fear’s Altar is the first Richard Gavin collection I’ve read, though I’d seen a few stories in anthologies. This impressed me very much, and raised Gavin in my estimation to among the handful of best writers of weird/horror. My full review is HERE.

Astoria by S.P. Miskowski
Astoria is a novella linked to S.P. Miskowski’s Shirley Jackson award nominated novel, Knock Knock. There’s also Delphine Dodd, another linked novella I haven’t read yet, but will soon, Astoria is a good one! Review HERE.

Joyland by Stephen King
Though Stephen King of course needs no introduction, this recent book was one a lot of his loyal readers might have missed. It’s the nostalgic story of an older man looking back on a summer he spent during college working at a low-budget amusement park in North Carolina. It’s not quite a horror story, though it has creepy moments like most Stephen King books. I enjoyed Joyland, though it’s not a major King work.

I’ll tackle the backlog a few at a time… more installments coming.

Words In: At Fear’s Altar by Richard Gavin

I kept reflecting, as I read Richard Gavin’s fourth collection At Fear’s Altar, about what horror fiction ought to be. Horror stories should be dark, disquieting. Too often what passes for “horror” is mundane or predictable. Whereas familiarity can be a virtue in some genres, where readers seek the recurring comfort of touchstones, horror by its very nature should unsettle.

Richard Gavin’s work stands out as chillingly dark, wickedly strange and otherworldly. These stories have the heart-pounding feel of nightmare, and carry a strong suggestion of the numinous. Where other writers offer familiar monsters in comfortable territory, always stopping short of threatening the reader, Gavin explores the weird and surreal just as much as the horrific. His strength is conveying an otherness, something looming out there, threatening. There’s a commonality with the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, but I find a greater kinship to the spooky occultism of Machen and Blackwood, whose best stories have at their heart a sense of something unknowable happening just out of view, completely out of proportion with human experience, and vibrating on an entirely different wavelength.

atfearsaltar

Highlights include “Chapel in the Reeds,” in which an elderly man moves back home with his daughter, who doesn’t want him there. The man wanders the countryside, seeming to shift into different realms, seeking a strange, mystic chapel, and speaking with his late wife. His young granddaughters are frightened when they witness his strange behavior, standing in the middle of a field, talking to no one. His daughter thinks he’s disintegrating, while he remains focused on finding the chapel again. Whether his reality or his daughter’s is most true, either possibility is disturbing.

In “The Abject,” Petra watches an eclipse, along with her husband tad and two male friends. Out across the water is a jagged island know as The Abject, about which Petra’s friend recounts a legend. Petra has a vision of proto-humans on the spire, and feels dangerously drawn to go there herself.

The main character in “A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress” walks the streets among falling bombs in a time of war in Europe. He’s trying to see the devil, feeling sensitively attuned to the city’s shadow side, and thinks he sees something. He finds a broken Cypress flower, red and star shaped, the spots a devilish, horned creature. Excited and inspired, thinking he’s found the devil he seeks, he then hears the cries of a girl trapped under rubble, and leaves her, trying to chase the devil. After he loses track, he to Helma and helps her out from under the rock. They connect, end up marrying, though not too happily. He’s still preoccupied with seeking darkness. They move out to the country, and nights he roams near their new house, looking for the devil’s traces. At times he finds these scattered Cypress flowers, but never quite what he seeks. Finally he learns Helma too is seeking something.

“King Him” is a shocking story of domestic unease, an adult brother and sister living together. She thinks he’s the crazy one, insisting on talking about an entity called “King Him.” Maybe he’s insane, maybe they both are, or maybe King Him is the real cause of the dysfunction creeping into their relationship.

“Only Enuma Elish” is a good example of Gavin’s treatment of characters with supernatural or occult beliefs. This story’s narrator meets an older woman across the street, and she introduces him to the book “Enuma Elish,” a tale of the universe’s creation, from ancient Babylon.

In “Darksome Leaves,” an isolated, socially awkward man becomes attracted to a young woman in his apartment building. His hopes of getting closer to her shift when they discover an ominous mask.

By far the book’s longest and most ambitious story, “The Eldritch Faith,” is both philosophical and metaphysical in its focus. It follows a boy who grows up seeking to understand reality’s true nature, to find a way out of the depressingly mundane ordinary existence. He comes up with a game called Curtains which he believes allows a ghost or spirit to communicate with him, and possibly enter our world. This exploration unfolds gradually, and feels chillingly real. His interactions with the entity he comes to know as Capricorn are among the more creepy and unnerving things I’ve ever read. “The Eldritch Faith,” which concludes the collection, exemplifies what Gavin is capable of.

At Fear’s Altar achieves heights — or perhaps depths — of darkness and disquiet almost unrivaled in recent horror fiction. It’s among the few most notable and impressive story collections I’ve read in the past five years. With this book, Gavin rises in my estimation to rank among the strongest practitioners of horror and weird fiction currently active. At Fear’s Altar is my first exposure to Gavin’s fiction, but now I gladly anticipate the pleasure of going back to investigate Charnel Wine (2004), Omens (2007), and The Darkly Splendid Realm (2009).Even more, I eagerly anticipate Gavin’s future works.

Word In: Astoria by S.P. Miskowski

Astoria is the second in a series of novellas linked to S.P. Miskowski’s Shirley Jackson Award nominated debut, Knock Knock. Each of the linked works follows a different spoke outward from the hub of Knock Knock’s primary characters, a trio of young girls and their immediate families.

One of these is Ethel Sanders, stuck in a life she finds unbearable. She reacts to sudden tragedy by abruptly fleeing Skillute, Washington, the small town she’s lived in all her life. Ethel not only leaves home, but steps out of her whole identity like shed skin. She travels down the Columbia river, which divides Oregon and Washington, toward the small coastal town of Astoria, on the Oregon side. There she tries on aspects of a new life, picking up elements one at a time, fantasizing that all of it’s real. Ethel clings to belief in the possibility of an unhappy middle-aged woman simply leaving behind the mundane existence that caused her dissatisfaction, to truly start over. For a while, it seems she’s reinvented herself, truly run away from the elements in her life that troubled her. But has something come along for the ride? Her escape may not be what it seems.

Astoria Cover

At times, Miskowski’s approach reminds me of Stephen King’s. Many attribute King’s lasting popularity to the horrific story elements, but I’ve always believed what he does best is tell the story from a place so intimately wound up in a character’s perspective that the reader feels as if they’re living someone else’s experience. Miskowski too writes in a style straightforward and transparent, yet vivid and always engaging. A deceptively simple narrative surface hides churning layers of confusion, pain and psychological turmoil.

Just as in Knock Knock Miskowski leads the reader to identify with the primary characters, in Astoria’s we share Ethel’s turmoil, her desperate grasping at a possible alternate future life. Every time she seems to have taken a step closer to this goal of reinvention, she seems to slip deeper into a state of delusion or self-deception. By the end, Ethel’s situation seems at once more settled, almost domestic, and also nightmarish. Astoria is the most accomplished work of fiction yet from S.P. Miskowski, an author still improving, achieving stronger effects. It’s a work of confidence, of engrossing atmosphere and real narrative control, strongly recommended.

Catching Up With Incoming Words

No, I have not written three entire book reviews in under 24 hours.

I’ve been way behind on posting reviews of some of the books I’ve read, including some I finished reading months ago. This backlog was stressing me out! Some of the reviews were mostly written and just needed to be assembled. In other cases, handwritten notes just needed to be typed up.

It feels good to clear the decks a bit.

I will probably cut down on the number of reviews I’ll write for a while… after I get through a few things like At Fear’s Altar and Jagannath and Staring Into the Abyss and Hair Side, Flesh Side.

I do love to talk about books and writers, and possibly help in some small way to boost those that deserve it. I also think it’s helpful, in a selfish way, for writers to think carefully and critically about other people’s writing. What works, what doesn’t, and why. It’s always seemed to me that writers derive more benefit from giving critiques than receiving them.

Despite my enjoyment of this book review thang, I need to scale back, at least for a while, the self-imposed sense of obligation. I’ll still talk about the books I’ve read, probably more briefly and off-the-cuff.

Words In: Every House is Haunted by Ian Rogers

Many of the 22 short stories in Every House is Haunted, the debut collection by Ian Rogers, feel connected. As the title suggests, this is a book about hauntings, though the stories Rogers tells venture beyond the well-worn template of the haunted house tale. On top of this unifying theme, several stories also feature paranormal investigators, something like agents Mulder and Scully of the X-Files, or hint at a shadowy group overseeing such intrusions. Rogers seeks to establish a common world in which paranormal events and entities are controlled, studied and policed by a broad and shadowy organization devoted to these functions.

Every House is Haunted

Rogers starts off strong with “Aces,” on its surface a routine family drama in which Toby’s sister has trouble in school and exhibits weird behavior, like many adolescents. This seeming normalcy masks the extreme strangeness of what’s really going on with the sister, who is obsessed with finding “aces,” playing cards which she discovers in strange places, such has hovering in mid-air. Toby only comes to understand his sister’s unusual nature when paranormal investigators arrive and explain.

Another strange and surreal piece early in the book, “A Night at the Library With the Gods” again displays Rogers’ skill for creating a familiar, mostly normal world, then gradually increasing the strangeness until the reader recognizes they’re in something more akin to nightmare. In “The Dark and the Young,” linguist Wendy takes a mysterious job, translating an occult “black book.” Some of the rituals described in this bizarre text make Wendy and some of her coworkers hesitant to participate.

A few less mature stories are sprinkled throughout, and in my opinion Rogers could have made a stronger debut impression by omitting these. I understand the desire to include early work, and indeed this flaw is so common in first collections I’m hesitant to mention it. At any rate, the few less-compelling pieces are more than offset by a high overall quality. The more recent stories seem generally darker, more macabre or surreal.Rogers closes the collection with a powerful series of tales, deftly and confidently told.

In “The Inheritor,” Daniel Ramis unexpectedly inherits a house from his father, with whom he had a terrible relationship. He visits the childhood home, a place evoking the terrible memory of his sister’s early death. Daniel always thought his father had sold the house when he moved, and can’t understand why he’d held onto it. Along with the house, Daniel is also left contents of safe deposit box: a gun, and a note from his father hinting at explanation. All that remains is for Daniel to discover what responsibility comprises the most horrible aspect of his father’s legacy.

A husband in “The Candle” gives his wife a guilt trip about possibly forgetting to blow out a candle before coming to bed. Time passes, and feeling guilty, he goes downstairs and finds something weird and disquieting in the dark. Here’s another story that starts off realistic, then takes a weird disconnect, making a subtle and eerie observation of the ways we open gaps in relationships through small acts of selfishness or distrust.

The last tale, “The Secret Door” makes a powerful ending to the book. Sarah and husband move into an old country house, and find a secret door bricked up on back side. She sleeps, and wakes again to find her husband’s not there. Other details, such as the bed and their car, inexplicably have changed. The story veers more deeply into surrealism. Sarah envisions a boy yelling from the bottom of a well, telling her she’s the one who put him there, hinting at connection to her earlier decision never to have kids. Her experience swerves between alternating realities, now alone and sick, then with her husband telling her she’s not well. It depicts increasing detachment from reality, a creepy back-and-forth between the real and the surreal.

Every House is Haunted is an above-average short fiction collection, especially noteworthy as a debut. The writing is both transparent enough for mainstream readers, and artful enough for those who like their prose with an edge. At his best, Rogers is very compelling, and the growth demonstrated within these pages suggest he’s one to watch.

Words In: Die, You Donut Bastards by Cameron Pierce

Die, You Donut Bastards is the latest collection of short fiction and prose poetry by Cameron Pierce. The whimsical title and cover art may suggest a mostly humorous approach to Bizarro, a genre which can range from arty surrealism to shock-focused extremity, and also at times encompassing more conventional storytelling with a subtler twinge of the surreal. While many authors focus on a single approach, Pierce here shows himself capable of covering all the bases.

Die You Doughnut Bastards

Most of the pieces are just a page or two, and focus on wild invention and playful absurdity. I detect in these shorter works the influence of Russell Edson, the master of surrealist prose poetry, though Pierce is less oblique, less blatantly symbolic, and more confrontational. Readers approaching this book from outside the Bizarro realm can expect a lot of zany humor and intentional absurdity, but will also discover a great degree of subtlety and sensitivity. In fact, those seeking a full-on Bizarro blast may be surprised by the restraint and emotional honesty present in the longer stories.

The lengthiest of these, “Lantern Jaws,” is a lovely tale of wonder and emotion, both subtle and graceful, reminiscent of something Kelly Link might create. In it, a teenage boy falls in love with a girl schoolmate who carries a vaguely Lovecraftian doom or curse. It’s a gentle, touching story, characteristics which may seem at odds with some of the extremes on display elsewhere in the book, yet it’s also quite dreamlike and surreal.

Another longer story, “Death Card” shows a couple, Tristan and Emily, shifting from youthful, carefree obsessions, such as Tristan’s comics and his collection of vinyl figures, to more adult concerns now that Emily is pregnant. Tristan goes along, half-reluctantly boxing up his collection to make a room for the baby. The story focuses the feelings of impending loss and disconnection from self, arising from Tristan’s recognition that life’s simple freedoms and youthful pleasures are soon to change.

In “Pablo Riviera, Depressed, Overweight, Age 31, Goes to the Mall,” an odd outsider catalogs an endless stream of pleasures, mostly fast food, during a trip to a shopping mall. This litany of cheeseburgers, taco corn dogs, and other excessive treats could be seen as Pablo’s attempt to numb the pain of his solitude and isolation, or perhaps simply exhibits the weirdly alienating effect of our obsession on grotesque, commercialized pleasures.

“Disappear” is the weird story of a pregnant woman’s baby disappearing right out of her belly. It turns out the fetus was stolen by horror author Stephen King, who apparently steals unborn babies and installs them into his typewriter as fuel or grist for new stories.

In “Mitchell Farnsworth,” one of the more transgressive pieces, Katie recollects once having sex with her boyfriend, the Mitchell Farnsworth of the title, while watching the movie Alien. After Mitchell moves on, the story recounts Katie’s long string of boyfriends, forming a detailed catalog of explicit sex acts, foods and drinks consumed, and the movies she watched with each — often Alien, sometimes The Exorcist or other horror films. Katie is increasingly stuck, unable to stop and reflect on this pattern, until she hears news about Mitchell Farnsworth.

In Die, You Donut Bastards, the shorter, weirder stories are greatest in number, and seem more geared toward a Bizarro audience. The longer stories, comprising about half the collection’s page count, exhibit greater emotional realism and even a bit more seriousness mixed in with the strange pop surrealism. I enjoyed the provocative range of styles, moods and approaches on display in Die, You Donut Bastards. It makes me eager to check out more Pierce’s work.