Thursday, December 5, 2019

THE IMMACULATE VOID by Brian Hodge

He had never witnessed anything that felt more unholy than this.
It’s always been difficult to define cosmic horror. It’s one of the most elusive of subgenres. The best way to describe cosmic horror is the fear that comes from witnessing something that is beyond the realm of human comprehension, the fear of something so vast that it defies all logic and understanding. This book is one of the best examples of the genre I've read. It’s a difficult feat to write about something that is “beyond human understanding” and make it palpable to read. But Brian Hodge pulls it off here, grounding the fantastic and other-worldly into a story that is relatable and engaging on a human level. It's proof that once your reader is engaged with familiar emotions and characters that they will go along for whatever ride you take them on.

It's a hard book to describe but Hodge instantly locks us in with parallel stories of a man trying to track down his missing sister, and the sister coming to terms with her traumatic past and what it could mean for her future. But in the midst of all this, Hodge somehow also deals with sadistic god-worshippers, colliding comets, and gazes into the infinite. It's a stunning novel that took me completely by surprise with its passionate writing, its creepy implications, and the touching relationship between the two main characters. If you have any curiosity or interest in cosmic horror, look no further than here for how well it can be done.
He longed to die. He longed to live. He longed to die to live again in some smarter version of this life. He yearned for it, prayed for it, then wept a tsunami when he realized he was the very god he was praying to, and that it was even more helpless than he was.

GRADE: A-

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

DRY COUNTY by Jake Hinkson

"We all had our chance to do the right thing, and none of us took it."
Any new release by Jake Hinkson is a day one purchase and read for me. I'm a huge fan of his dark noirs that tell tales of complicated losers trying their best to dig themselves out of trouble and making a terrible job of it. While it might lack the manic energy of his earlier books, Dry County might be his most widely accessible book. But he never strays away from his usual tackling of taboo material. In this new novel, he brings together several members of a small Arkansas town, as they collide with each other in the wake of a respected local preacher's decision to pay off his former gay lover in exchange for silence.

There are no good guys or bad guys here as Hinkson passes no judgment on any of the players. Although there's a constant theme in his work critiquing the dangers and hypocrisies of religion, here it's done with a maturity where he just lets the characters loose with all their flaws and without commentary. And I as a reader was riveted as usual watching them desperately dig themselves deeper into their respective holes. Great, constantly entertaining work as usual.
"I'm drowning, and drowning men don't call out for God. They gasp for air."
GRADE: A-

CORROSION by Jon Bassoff

For a few minutes I wished that I were dead but then I worried about hell and what it would bring.
I would describe myself as an avid reader of noir and dark fiction. I feel like I've read lots of great work in these genres. But every now and then I find something that takes me by surprise. Author
Jon Bassoff has been on my radar for a while and I've finally made it to his work with this pitch black, mind-blowing debut noir.
Back up the mountain, shotgun over one shoulder, bride over the other. And now, forever, snow falling, wind howling, boots crunching, breath wheezing, devil laughing.
I don't want to talk too much about the story but it treads familiar waters in regards to content but in an original and creative way that makes it totally addictive and compulsively readable. From its fiery, crackerjack prose, its parallel POV structure, its evolving narrator, and its heavy themes, this is sly, sneaky, and nimbly controlled work that is constantly surprising as the revelations are slowly revealed. And most importantly, it's a brave examination of its troubled protagonists. This one puts Bassoff even more on my radar in a major way.
I used to not believe in God, his father has said, but now, I'm a changed man, a true believer. Only a Supreme Being could create such misery and mayhem.
GRADE: A

AFTER THE STORM by Marietta Miles

Although she's published as a crime author, Marietta Miles once again fools everyone and defies all genre expectations, focusing on subtle, but all-too-human emotional conflict, showing the struggle to rebuild not only after physical and natural disasters, but personal, intimate ones as well. And in After The Storm, she shows that sometimes those efforts fail.

After The Storm is a follow-up to her previous May, and we follow May and Tommy sticking together after the devastating nor’ easter levels their lives and how their story intersects with two siblings fleeing a traumatic past. The book fits right into Miles’s growing body of work, concentrating on similar themes not just from May but also from her novella Route 12.

GRADE: B

Saturday, September 7, 2019

SONGS FOR THE UNRAVELING OF THE WORLD by Brian Evenson

There's nothing more exciting than reading work by an author who's completely singular and unique, an author that almost defies description. Brian Evenson is one of those writers. Anyone who's ever read any work by him knows what I'm talking about. I'm not quite sure how to even catogerize the stories included here, which is the first full story collection I've read by him. They're mostly horrifying, but not quite standard horror, there are some pieces with aliens and spaceships but I wouldn't quite call them science fiction or fantasy. What I love about the stories is that there is very little valuable time spent on going into full detail about the setting. The effect is that the stories have a timeless, otherworldy feel, where I wasn't quite sure if the story took place in the future, the present, on Earth, or even in another dimension. This adds so much to the heavy, oppressive atmosphere in most of these stories.
I was there for days, weeks perhaps, and the things that happened to me were far too terrible, are far too terrible still. There was light and noise, a flutter of wings that were not wings, a man screaming who both was and was not me. The press of other creatures tugging at my extremities, the seepage of one skin through another skin, the loss of most of one foot then the loss of most of the other, a man pounding on the door and begging in a voice not entirely his own to be set free. 
Evenson's unique imagination is on full display here as he weaves tales of identity, existensialism, and paranoia that are perfectly bite-sized. Some of my favorite stories here are:

"Wanderlust," about a man who gets the feeling that someone's watching him and goes to great lengths to avoid the ever-present gaze
"A Disappearance," a surprising tale about a man investigating the death of his best friend
"No Matter Which Way She Turned," a moody story about a girl with no face
"The Cardiacs," where a magician's trick fails in a dark and mysterious way
"Line of Sight" and "Room Tone," two stories of filmmakers obsessed with the devil in the details
and the title story, an unexpected, surprising story about a father's dedication to his daughter that takes dark turns.

If you're looking for stories that stray from the normal and will linger in your subconcious long after reading, read Brian Evenson's novels and short stories. And this collection is a perfect place to start.
After all, I already know I am not as stable as I have been led to believe. How hard could it possibly be to no longer be me?
GRADE: A-



Monday, August 26, 2019

COME TO DUST by Bracken Macleod

There's so much dramatic potential in a story that focuses on the death of a child and their subsequent and questionable "return." How do you reckon with the horrifying implications of a child being reanimated from the dead, when all you feel is happiness at their return?

This book tackles this idea and its opening third shows so much promise, with an ex-con struggling to make ends meet as he's trying to keep his niece safe after his sister abandoned her, and having to face his greatest fear when she dies. Then, after a number of kids around the world inexplicably wake from the dead, he has to deal with her return. This first third is emotional, deliberate and well-paced, really putting you in the protagonist's shoes. 

But the final two-thirds of the novel betrays all of that as it devolves into a generic and forgettable action thriller that loses most of the thoughtfulness that it promises in the beginning. It doesn't go very far at all in the exploration of its great conceit, and that's pretty disappointing. 

GRADE: C-

Friday, August 2, 2019

RECURSION by Blake Crouch

This might be one of the most batshit crazy novels I've read in a while. It features a high-concept plot that I'm not sure didn't contradict itself and break it's own rules, but it's so complicated and so damn entertaining that I didn't have the time or the brainpower to pick it apart. And I kinda don't care either. Similar in design and tone to Blake Crouch's previous banger, Dark Matter, this novel begins as a curious mystery about false memory and builds from there into something that I'll only describe in two words: MEMORY. WARS. If that's not enough to get you to buy this book right now, I don't know what would.

In it's final third, the book starts to fly off the rails. But instead of simply plummeting to a fiery death in the canyon of silliness, it sprouts wings and starts to soar on it's own winds. It really is awesome to witness a writer so in command of his work, and have the balls to be able to pull something like this off. And not only does the book have moments of high-concept, speculative brilliance, but (like Dark Matter before it) Crouch also never sacrifices character depth and emotional weight. By the end, the novel stays memorable not only for it's sci-fi flair, but also for the journey with the characters. It's possible that a better novel might come out this year, but I'm willing to bet money that there won't be one that does it with as much style.

GRADE: A-

Monday, July 29, 2019

HARD COLD WHISPER by Michael Hemmingson

There aren't many contemporary crime noir novels that attempt to recreate the manic intensity of the best classic pulp paperbacks and succeed quite as well as this one. It's about a Southern California process server who falls for a teenager and gets entangled in her plot to fast track her aunt's death and gain her inheritance, and it's written with direct prose that's full of mischief and a sly smirk. It's apparent that Hemmingson was having a ball seeing what dark turns this story would take as he wrote it, pushing our ill-fated protagonist deeper into a cursed nightmare, all for our sadistic entertainment. It's wicked, short, and swift, just like the best novels of the Gold Medal days, recalling the work of people like Gil Brewer and Harry Whittington.

GRADE: A-

Friday, July 19, 2019

THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB by Craig Davidson

This is yet another very affecting coming-of age I've read recently and it wears it's heart on it's sleeve like the best of them. I've been interested in reading Davidson's work for a while now and this was definitely a great place to start! I was constantly taken by the vivid, sensitive quality in his writing on every page. I wouldn't be surprised if this turns out to be semi-autobiographical because there's a really intimate, personal quality to the work, that lent to the bittersweet but romantic atmosphere that's important for the story. The book details half a year in the childhood of Jake Baker as he explores the lingering past in his Canadian town of Cataract City with his new best buddy and his eccentric uncle.

I surprisingly really enjoyed the aside's to the main character's present day work as a brain surgeon and how that related to and lent more insight to the book's main theme of the malleability of memory  and recollection.

Not only is it about childhood, loss of innocence, nostalgia, and growing up, it's also about regret, memory, and the emotional importance of storytelling. It's a quiet, but nonetheless romantic and affecting tale from a talented, promising author.
Reality never changes. Only our recollections of it do. Whenever a moment passes, we pass along with it into the realm of memory. And in that realm, geometries change. Contours shift, shades lighten, objectivities dissolve. Memory becomes what we need it to be.

GRADE: B+

Friday, July 12, 2019

SNOWBLIND II: THE KILLING GROUNDS by Michael McBride

Author Michael McBride is quickly becoming a creature horror writer I can really depend on, who never fails to provide tense, atmospheric, and well-paced, popcorn-ready tales of suspense that are easy to read and always satisfying. This is the sequel to his great novella Snowblind, a wintry monster tale that was also a great read. This sequel really works on it's own as it doesn't exactly follow-up on the events of the first book, but features all- new characters who get stuck in the remote Rockies during a search mission after they encounter something truly bloodthirsty in the snowed-in forest. This novella is short but somehow McBride finds the time to really develop compelling characters, especially the character of John Avery, who's desperate dedication to finding his missing girlfriend is potent, relatable, and sympathetic. This book is just as good as the first but can also be read as a total stand-alone.

GRADE: B+