Words In: Chick Bassist by Ross Lockhart

Chick Bassist is Ross Lockhart’s debut as a writer of fiction, after establishing himself as a fantasy and horror editor best known for two successful Lovecraftian “Book of Cthulhu” anthologies. Despite Lockhart’s genre editing background, the only fantasy in Chick Bassist is of the rock-and-roll variety.

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This book is crazy fun, often funny, but it also has a serious feel, as troubling and difficult as real life. It tracks the passions and conflicts of an enjoyably grungy cast of dysfunctional characters, every one of them f**ked up in a charmingly rock-and-roll sort of way. Lockhart realistically captures the fun and filth of the garage music scene, the transitory existences of bands, the passionate creativity and train-wreck lifestyles. The characters and their scene are clearly personally known to the author, and will seem familiar to anyone who has played in bands or at least been part of that milieu.

Told from multiple viewpoints, the story not only switching character perspectives, but also juggling first, second and third person points of view. The title refers to Erin Locke, “the Queen of Rock,” who leads the band Heroes for Goats until things implode, and she takes off to play bass for a more successful band. Other points of view follow Robbie Snow, the bassist kicked out of Heroes for Goats for acting all mental after Erin had sex with him, and Christian, who ends up getting a severe beating by Robbie after Erin makes Christian kick him out of the band.

At its best, rock and roll is about ambition and failure, about lessons learned too late, about love, and also death. Chick Bassist is crammed full of these things. If you think you might enjoy a punk/grunge flavored book about underground bands and musicians, you’ll love this Chick Bassist. I browsed the first pages of this book when I was already in the middle of reading something else, and this one immediately sucked me in.

As for the “Would you read a sequel?” test, Chick Bassist easily passes. I’d gladly read the further adventures of Lockhart’s rock and roll characters. Bring it on!

Words In: Fungi, ed. Orrin Gray & Silvia Garcia-Moreno

Fungi, edited by Orrin Gray and Silvia Garcia-Moreno, collects about two dozen weird and fantastic stories focused on the theme of fungus, including mushrooms, molds and a whole related class of bizarre life forms.

I expected mostly dark tales of decay and derangement, but many of the tales here turn out to be lighthearted, whimsical, even silly. Whatever one’s preference in terms of tone, Fungi undeniably contains a healthy measure of strong genre fiction. Whether due to my own predisposition toward more serious horror and dark fantasy, or because the more playful efforts are not as strong, I consider the most successful stories here to be those darkest or most surreal in tone. The work of John Langan, Laird Barron, and E. Catherine Tobler stood apart in my estimation.

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Langan’s lead-off “Hyphae” is a concentrated dose of nastiness. I dare anyone to read this without at least once letting out a disgusted, shuddering moan. I haven’t seen Langan write something so viscerally gruesome until this. So awful, yet wonderful. I loved it.

Laird Barron never disappoints, and his “Gamma,” a cynical yet emotionally powerful survey of childhood, adulthood, entropy and decay, balances a boy’s recollection of his father killing a lame horse named Gamma against a present-day, adult contemplation of his wife leaving him for another man. The story looks outward to embrace death and human existence more generally, and finally broadens to face horror on a truly cosmic scale.

It’s worth noting that E. Catherine Tobler’s “New Feet Within My Garden Go,” which may well be my favorite piece in the book, is a bonus story present in the hardcover but not the paperback version of Fungi. It’s a shame many readers will miss Tobler’s tale, which is complex, detail-rich, and overflowing with delicious, poetic weirdness. Beautifully and artfully told.

Another handful of stories deserve mention. Nick Mamatas describes in “The Shaft Through the Middle of It All” an apartment building where fungus growing in a ventilation shaft can bring harm to residents, though another use of fungus brings a kind of retributive power. J.T. Glover’s “The Flaming Exodus of the Greifswald Grimoire” tells of two brother sorcerers, adventuring grimoire hunters who find trouble when they try to snatch a tempting tome in a house they assume is empty. Paul Tremblay’s “Our Stories Will Live Forever” has the feel of straight realism, until a character dealing with terror of flying undergoes a transformation. Lastly, “The Pilgrims of Parthen,” by a writer new to me, Kristopher Reisz, suggests a society taken over by the visionary trips brought on by newly discovered mushrooms, which seem to transport the user into a distinct and transcendent separate reality.

Several more, despite falling short of total success in my judgement, possess strengths of expression or concept sufficient to at least partly recommend them. These include works by W.H. Pugmire, Ian Rogers, Daniel Mills, Jeff VanderMeer and A.C. Wise. Also, one humorous story in Fungi that I think works (by virtue of going way over the top) is Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington’s “Tubby McMungus, Fat From Fungus,” which describes a showdown between rival merkin-makers for fashion-conscious society felines.

Where other stories fell short, lapsing into slightness or forgettability, was often in making a story’s entire point nothing more than someone being consumed by mold, or surprised by the druggy effects of mushrooms. Of course, some that miss the mark for one reader may please others looking for different approaches to the subject. Whatever tone the reader prefers, Fungi contains a more than sufficient number of challenging and artful takes on the theme. Readers receptive to the fungal theme, and familiar with at least some of the authors contained here, should find in Fungi a successful weird fiction anthology and an overall satisfying read.

Words In: The Day and the Hour by Ennis Drake

“The Day and the Hour & Drone” is a short book (roughly novella length) containing two stories by Ennis Drake, whose debut novel 28 Teeth of Rage I reviewed previously. As in his debut, Drake’s strength is his artful, powerful prose, as well as the confidence with which he evokes perceptual distortion, hallucination or possibly insanity on the narrator’s part.

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The longer and more ambitious of the two, “The Day and the Hour,” features Jason Grae, a man tormented by his gift of sight and prophecy. Aware in advance of a series of seemingly connected catastrophies, yet unable to stop their cascade, Jason posesses the vision of a divine being along with the seemingly powerlessness of an ordinary man.

“Drone” tells of another tormented soul, in this case the “pilot” or remote operator of a drone aircraft, a fighter in the long-distance conflict modern warfare has become.

Both stories show Drake’s improvement as a writer, and demonstrate ample proof of the confident, poetic style with which he’s capable of drawing a narrative. This writing is full of unrestrained feeling, packed with visual detail and psychological resonance. Ennis Drake shows a dexterity of language and command of narrative that indicate he’s on the verge of even greater things. This is a name to watch.

Review Backlog… Yes, I Know!

There are many, many books i have finished reading and not yet reviewed. This is no big deal if it’s just a book I bought and read, and figured I might as well review, but I feel kind of bad about it if I asked for a review copy, only to drag my ass in producing a review.

In many cases the reviews are partly written and just need to be polished a bit. In other cases I have notes, and even creating a brief review from existing notes is pretty easy.

I’ve read so many great books in the past year or so, especially story collections, and my to-be-read pile still tempts me with a mountain of other cool stuff. My plan is to start finishing and posting 1-2 new reviews a week until I’ve caught up.

Words In: The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones

Told at the full-tilt pace of a teen slasher pic, The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones effectively conveys the author’s love and respect for the form. Divided up into very short bites, like a movie is divided into shots of a few seconds each, the story proceeds at a rapid clip, with none of the typical novel’s digressions or introspection. It’s something like 90% dialog, interspersed with tags almost like shorthand, describing character actions.

The slasher is probably one of the most straight-forward, accessible kinds of movies, but this book is told in an experimental style. Others have likened the format to a screenplay, but it’s actually more like an overseeing narrator describing the on-screen action of a film as it happens. It’s a verbal play-by-play, describing shots, character movements, what the camera (and audience) sees and notices. The narrator is well-versed in the actors, directors, references, inside jokes and tropes of slasher films.

The Last Final Girl by Stephan Graham Jones
The Last Final Girl by Stephan Graham Jones

This results in a fun, cheeky stream-of-consciousness running description, complete with winking asides from the characters and sometimes also the invisible narrator letting the reader in on any references they might’ve missed. Though the story takes place in the present day, these high school kids are very familiar with cultural touchstones of the 80s (the golden age of the slasher film, as well as the coming-of-age era of the author) so that lines from popular movies and other culture from my own high school years pop up all through the story.

In a sense this is less about literature, in the sense of inward reflection, and more about the kinetic energy of film told in written form. It’s clever, full of attitude, crafted by a person who clearly loves, values and understands slasher films as a genre. The Last Final Girl is a good-natured, energetic gonzo tale, full of winking references, name-dropping and a non-stop barrage of self-reflexive acknowledgment that Jones is in on the joke and he’s enjoying himself in the writing every bit as much as any reader.

Words In: Ink by Damien Walters Grintalis

Ink is the first published novel of Damien Walters Grintalis. In the past year or so I’ve enjoyed a number of beautiful short stories by Grintalis, most characterized by an especially lush and vivid quality to the language. Though I’m often reluctant to take a chance on first novels, as they’re so often flawed in terms of structure and pacing, her short fiction convinced me Ink would be worth a try.

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It’s the story of Jason Harford, a young man devastated after having been left by his wife just before the novel begins. He sets out to soothe the pain of rejection, telling himself he’s celebrating his newfound autonomy by doing things his controlling ex-wife never would’ve permitted. He gets drunk in a bar, and acquiesces to a stranger’s suggestion that he should get a tattoo. The tattoo artist, a crusty and uncomfortably menacing old guy Jason calls “Sailor,” asks Jason to sign a liability waiver before he proceeds. Jason starts to wonder what he’s gotten himself into, but the resulting tattoo of a griffin is beautiful, exactly what he wants. It impresses his friends, even leads to a hookup with an attractive young lady named Mitch, who also happens to have a griffin tattoo.

Jason starts to think he’s dodged the worst of the pain of being rejected by his wife. A cool new tattoo, more time to spend with his friends, even a cute young lady who fell into his lap, and seems really into him. Maybe things will turn out better for Jason, not worse… right?

Most readers will have guessed that the significance of Jason’s tattoo goes more than skin deep. The name of the book, and the sinister nature of the tattoo artist (real name John S. Iblis) should make clear there’s a price to pay, a reversal to come. The tattoo isn’t quite what it seemed, and Jason hasn’t seen the last of “Sailor.”

Many writers whose short fiction is especially poetic or stylized often take a simpler approach when working at novel length, and that’s the case here. The writing is deft and effective, with a straight-ahead style of minimal adornment, a focus on clarity. There’s never any question what’s happening, or why a character is doing what they are — both frequent problems in first novels. The story is engaging from chapter one, and moves briskly through to the end without faltering or getting side-tracked.

Grintalis is certainly an emerging writer worth keeping an eye on. I’d love to see her approach the novel form using the more poetic, almost ornamented style of language of some of her short stories. In any case, Ink is a successful and most promising debut novel.

Words In: Knock Knock by S.P. Miskowski

Knock Knock, a novel by S. P. Miskowski, follows a trio of girls, from the town of Skillute in western Washington state. We’re introduced to Marietta, Ethel and Beverley at age eleven, follow their lives as they grow up to womanhood, see their connections to each other evolve and shift as the events of life and adulthood affect them individually and together. The girls hear horrible rumors of what happens to women who become pregnant, and resolve that this will never happen to them.

Knock Knock

Marietta lives with her aunt Delphine, who is something like the town mystic, herbalist and fortune-teller, and has an idea of a spell the girls might perform in order to ensure they’re never burdened with motherhood. They find a remote, seemingly spot in the woods to perform the ritual, despite Skillute area legend that “Miss Knocks” lives in the forest and will chase children and possibly snatch them away. The discovery of strange bones half-buried in the wild, combined with the tales of Miss Knocks, leaves the girls more frightened of the woods and their own weird, occult-like ritual, than of the fear of eventual pregnancy which drove them out there in the first place.

All three girls remember that day. The memories have a different effect on each, with the passing of time. Miskowski examines the way fear of legends affects the living, not only in terms of the actual manifest “powers” of the force of legend, but also by the way our fear shifts us, opens us up to risks, and closes off possibilities.

We revisit the trio as they age, learn more about their family backgrounds, and see how they fit into their community. The familiarity of the settings and seeming normalcy of the characters heighten the effect of disquiet and strangeness when horrific elements intrude. Miskowski’s strength is in the naturalistic depiction of characters and real-life events and settings, which is not to say she lacks skill in depicting the horrific or supernatural elements. It’s that vibrantly lifelike sense of observing real human beings as their lives pass from the normal to the strange that heightens the effect of fear and unease when it occurs.

Knock Knock creeps up on the reader slowly, without flashy effects or a fast pace. I was won over by Miskowski’s believable characters, and the realistic depiction of a supernatural intrusion into small town life. Miskowski has announced a forthcoming series of novellas based on this place and set of characters, the first of which is Delphine Dodd. The darkly effective creepiness Knock Knock is enough to make me want to see what more she does with the Skillute milieu. Recommended, especially for readers who favor suspenseful, slow-building psychological horror.

Words In: In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay

I first saw Paul Tremblay’s name mentioned in the blogs of several other writers I enjoy, so it should be no surprise that I enjoy the fictional worlds he creates. I love the way Tremblay balances strange and playful elements against emotional realism and seriousness. These stories take chances, but never leave the reader behind in pursuit of writerly flourishes or abstractions.

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The bulk of the collection is comprised of whimsical yet dark pieces existing in a sort of no-man’s-land between genre fantasy, thinking person’s horror and the absurdist-realist balancing act of Aimee Bender or Donald Barthelme. Think “weird fiction” in the modernist sense, rather than Weird Tales or Lovecraft. Many of these stories would be as much at home in the New Yorker as a genre periodical, though the oddity and off-kilter of Tremblay’s work will certainly please readers geared toward the fantastic or the dark.

Earlier pieces address birth, childhood and youth, as in the memorable “The Teacher,” where a class full of kids follow a teacher to cult-like extremes in pursuit of a difficult lesson, or “It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks,” which depicts a strange family vacation full of delusion and deception. In the middle are a few slight pieces, more like vignettes than stories, but later on the collection moves on to address post-apocalypse or “breakdown of society” scenarios, in every case without explaining what happened, or how. “We Will Never Live in the Castle,” in which characters try to survive in an a disintegrating amusement park, is a highlight.

Though often weirdly troubling, Tremblay’s tales are direct in the telling, emotionally honest and straightforward enough to be easily understood. By turns funny, shocking, disturbing, touching, often all the above in the space of a single story, In the Mean Time leaves me extremely impressed by Tremblay’s craft and his intelligence. I highly recommended this adventurous and marvelously weird collection.

Words In: A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer’s A Pretty Mouth is so much damn fun! Tanzer runs through a variety of modes, from amusement to historical drama, and from playful smut to occult mystery. Tremendously entertaining throughout, the four stories and short novel form a linked sequence examining a strange family’s centuries-long history. Each installment follows a different pair of Calipash twins (the family’s children always arrive in twinned pairs) in various historical eras. This thread binds the stories into an almost novelistic whole, while the shifts in time and setting gives Tanzer a chance to play around with literary influences and try out storytelling flavors.

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These commence with the Wodehouse-inspired lead-off, “A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the Downs,” a charming, funny and inventive mashup. Tanzer doesn’t just riff on Wodehouse’s style or flavor. Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves actually appear, and end up mixed in a “high society meets secret society” tale with a strong Lovecraftian flavor.

“The Hour of the Tortoise” is a gothic tale about Chelone, herself a writer of gothic fiction, whose life and stories frequently intertwine. The third piece, “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins,” appeared in the Historical Lovecraft anthology and was reprinted in the first Book of Cthulhu, so will be familiar to some readers of Lovecraftian anthologies.

The long novella which gives the book its title follows 17th century university boys seeking entertainment and getting into mischief. Gradually the Calipash influence exposes young Henry Milliner to a world of gradually revealed debauchery, mystery and secrecy. In the finale, the Roman era setting of “Damnatio Memoriae” shows how far back the Calipash line extends, and reveals something about the nature of the family’s curse. As a self-contained story it may be the least compelling in the book, but its presence is justified as a sort of origin tale, shedding light upon the rest.

In addition to the oft-mentioned influences of Wodehouse, Edward Gorey and Aubrey Beardsley, I found much of A Pretty Mouth reminiscent of the zany-sexy-scary-funny cinema of the late Ken Russell, such as Lair of the White Worm or Salome’s Last Dance. Overall, this is a crazy book — that is, a giddy sort of crazy, where the reader sees early on it’s not just random silliness, but guided by a great inventive intelligence.

In an era when most emerging authors seek only to chase the latest market trend, Tanzer does something completely, strangely different. This book’s charm derives from the way she successfully strikes such a wide range of notes. It’s charming, intelligent and cleverly crafted, a sure sign we’re in for many fresh and memorable things from Molly Tanzer in the future. Overall, A Pretty Mouth is one of the better debut collections of recent years, and certainly one of the most distinctive.

Words In: Best Horror of the Year, v.4, Edited by Ellen Datlow

This is Ellen Datlow’s fourth time editing Best Horror of the Year for Night Shade Books. This edition is the best so far, combining potent, ambitious longer works by genre stars with a varied sampler of up and coming names. Eighteen stories (including several novellas) follow Datlow’s lengthy introduction, a wide-ranging summary of the genre year touching on noteworthy novels, anthologies, collections, periodicals, awards and events. If the tasting menu of the year’s finest short fiction weren’t enough to make the volume an essential overview of all things noteworthy in the horror genre, this overview tips the balance. This makes an excellent introduction to talented new writers, as well as others more established who may yet be unfamiliar to a given reader.

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For example, I knew David Nickel and Brian Hodge by name, but hadn’t read their works, which turned out to constitute pleasant revelations. In Nickle’s “Looker,” a drunk man at a party finds a woman whose qualities go beyond the merely eye-pleasing. In “Roots and All,” Hodge’s character revisits a town where important childhood events occurred, some of which still echo in the present. Both stories exemplify Datlow’s preference for character-driven horror, more haunting mood and troubling memory than blood and shrieking monsters. There are several more standouts:

“Blackwood’s Baby,” like many Laird Barron stories, takes place in rural Washington state, and expands upon Barron’s personal, regional mythos. This novella tracks a 1930s expedition of diverse hunters seeking a beast of legend more dangerous than any of them anticipate. It’s as powerful as any previous work by Barron, who lately can be counted upon to contribute at least one rich and potent tale to each year’s best.

In Livia Llewellyn’s “Omphalos,” a girl caught in terrible surroundings must fight complex factors keeping her in place. Llewellyn specializes in the dark, raw-edge and harrowing. Her writing pulses with blood and seethes with emotion. Her “Engines of Desire” is among the best weird/dark collections of recent years, certainly one of the top debuts.

In John Langan’s “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos,” two fallen former agents try to claw their way back to gainful employment. They’re hired to grab a “Mr. White,” who may be a very different order of being from what they expect. Dark yet breezily entertaining, merging the grittiness of noir and spy thriller intrigue with a Lovecraftian hint of ancient forces lurking beneath the everyday world’s seeming normalcy. Langan’s a skilled writer, whose work Datlow often features. At times I’ve thought his work needed more of an edge. This has it.

“The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” by Peter Straub is a tour-de-force of tender yet bitter codependent romance conveyed in a disorienting balance of straight realism and twisted surrealism. In a series of encounters separated by wide gaps of time, the title characters (the much older Ballard is a mysterious “fixer” type employed by Sandrine’s father) journey down the Amazon River on boats with ever-changing names. The couple, caught up in unfathomable events, exhibit a muted curiosity about their circumstances. At times they make experimental gestures seeking to understand the odd nature of the boat or its invisible crew. What knowledge they gain always seems to be lost, forgotten or clouded by the next interlude. The effect is weirdly disorienting, yet familiar. Don’t we all forget lessons we’ve learned, ignore warning signs, and often repeat our mistakes? The growing surreality of Ballard and Sandrine’s circumstances finally unfolds at least partially. Horrific and seemingly occult aspects are revealed, yet mystery remains. Straub may be the most cerebral of horror writers, and this is one of his best, boldest works.