Tuesday, November 29, 2016

NOWHERE by Roger Smith

A recurring theme in Roger Smith's work is the residue of Apartheid and how the South African people are still affected by those ghosts of the past. That theme is something that you can't avoid when you write in the unflinching way that Smith does about race and class conflict in modern South Africa. The ghosts of Apartheid are always lurking in the background of all of his books, but in this one, his latest, they are brought front and center.

It follows two separate investigations that ultimately connect and collide: in the first, a cop on the outs travels to NĂªrens ("nowhere" in Afrikaans) to arrest a racist, white-power Afrikaaner who's created a white-only outpost in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, and in the second, after the South African President murders his #1 wife with a tribal spear, a decorated, retired cop is blackmailed into conducting a sham-investigation to cover up the murder. These two stories come together in violence and reckoning, in grand Roger Smith fashion.

The characters here are some of his best, including a fascinating and complex "villain" in the fixer Steve Bungu, who is also one of my favorite characters I've read about this year. Former cop Joe Louw is also great, a man tortured by the fact that his unavoidable past has put him in a position where he has to go against his usually unwavering ethics.

The book is also a pleasure to read from a story standpoint as I loved the way Smith meticulously laid all of the groundwork and then revealed layer after layer as the story went on until I realized that there was much more to all of it than I expected, a tale of conspiracy and revenge, of a coming to terms with past legacy in a similar way to Brian Panowich's Bull Mountain from last year.

Smith is such a great storyteller that too many readers are missing out on.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

RIDGERUNNER by Rusty Barnes

All things become clearer in sunlight.
Ridgerunner is a piece of country grit from 280 Steps, in which a part-time wildlife conservation deputy in rural Pennsylvania gets embroiled in a bullet-ridden feud with the Pittmans, the local family of outlaws. Initially I was excited with the prospect of having our hero, Matt Rider, stumble through the book with gunshot wounds and a broken ankle in a cast. I thought this would add an extra layer to the action and the tension that I was pumped to read about. But this plot element either backfired or wasn't used to it's potential because Matt spent a lot of the novel just waiting around. That was my biggest problem with this one: there is almost no urgency. There are serious threats to Matt's family by villains who are largely unseen and can pop up at anytime, but yet Matt somehow finds time to go shopping and sit on the couch. He doesn't even really seem all that pressed about the situation he's in. There are many parts in this book where narrative urgency comes to a total halt and I felt no sense of real danger through most of it.
I wanted blood, and I wanted it now, without my uniform and all the bullshit that went with it.
I also loved the idea of keeping the villains fairly mysterious in order to build their reputation along with the reader's anticipation. But then this build-up didn't pay-off at all and it turns out that the Pittmans are lightweights in a big way, with a climactic shoot-out that's instantly forgettable.  I would normally call the end of this novel "anti-climactic," but then again, it's not really a letdown because nothing really happened in rest of the book either.


Sunday, November 20, 2016


This graphic adaptation of James Sallis's great novella seems to take its cue in part from the Nicolas Winding Refn movie adaptation, with its neon-infused, 80's nostalgia vibe. One of the first things I noticed in the graphic novel was the color, the magenta and green tones really evoked a similar mood to the movie.

The book, which collects the four comic issues of Drive, pares Sallis's book down to the bare essentials, which isn't always a good thing, especially because a Sallis book is most likely already just bare essentials. Although it keeps the ultra-hard-boiled vibe and some of Sallis's best lines, it loses much of the thoughtfulness and idiosyncrasies that are some of the trademarks of a Sallis book. Also, the abbreviated comic book structure causes it all to seem like a rush, skimming over important elements, like Irina and Benicio, and the Driver's past. This adaptation isn't bad, just not very memorable.


Saturday, November 19, 2016


In one of the most ambitious books I've read all year, author Laird Barron presents us with a collection of stories that not only play with the mixing of pulp genres like hard-boiled noir, slasher thriller, and cosmic horror, but also build a whole horror mythology as they move along, compiling to become a mosaic novel in which everything is connected. All of the stories revolve around various people that live in a small, cursed Alaskan town, and the horrors that befall them.
"There's a hole no man can fill," says the count. "No amount of love or hate or heat poured into the pit. No amount of light. I am the voice of the abyss."
This is my introduction to Laird Barron and he truly has a voice of his own. I was really impressed with his writing; on a sentence level, it might be some of the best prose I've read all year. Every story has a palpable atmosphere and there are parts of these stories that are truly creepy and stuck with me at night. But I do feel that each story meandered and took too long to get to its payoff. Although I loved the writing, I do feel that the tales were a little long-winded and overstuffed. Because this book reportedly builds on other Barron stories, I wonder if I would've enjoyed this more if I read some of his other work first. There are many things about this book I still don't fully understand, but I was always intrigued, similar to the way I felt after seeing David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. Although it's sometimes confusing and frustrating, it's a unique piece of work and definitely going on my re-read list again so I can appreciate and explore it more.


Friday, November 4, 2016

ODD MAN OUT by James Newman

James Newman's new novella shares similar themes to his acclaimed novel Animosity, themes like mob mentality, the nature of hate, and the way that hate is contagious. Eight teenage boys are spending a summer at the brand new Black Mountain Camp for Boys, kayaking, swimming, and playing baseball. But when a secret of one of the boys is revealed and the campers are left without much responsible supervision, normal teasing and shit-talking turns into something much more horrifying.

I didn't fully buy into the descent to hardcore violence that happened in Animosity, but I didn't have that problem here, partially because it involved unsupervised high school boys, with whom anything is possible. Newman doesn't pussy-foot around the subject of bigotry and the ugliness in the way kids treat each other and it was sometimes difficult to read. With me, it felt like Newman was preaching to the choir, but there are many people out there that need to read this book and understand the depths to where intolerance can take you. I'll even go as far to say that this probably should be assigned reading in some high school classes. A strong look at the dark side of human nature.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

SUNBLIND by Michael McBride

There are tried-and-true, heavily-used conventions in horror fiction, elements like darkness and the cold and snow. They've become things that we equate with atmospheric creepiness, trembling, and goosebumps. But here, Michael McBride skillfully uses bright sunlight and intense heat to instill more terror than most of the horror fiction I've read. Here, it's all about sunburn blisters, and not being able to blink because your eyelids are too dry,
The novel opens with an ace Border Patrol agent discovering the body of a Mexican woman in the middle of the Sonoran desert, a woman that's carved a cryptic message onto her chest. Along with a couple of his fellow agents, he sets out into the desert night to find out what happened to her and her fellow companions trying to cross the border. In a parallel story, the book follows what happened to the travelers from the woman's point of view and we discover the true horror of what happened.

It's a totally ingenious concept, that not only tackles the topical subject of illegal immigration but shows the absolute horror of walking across the hot desert with limited resources. Intense heat from which there's no escape or relief, dehydration to the point where you can't even sweat or cry anymore, snakes, hunger, the cartels and their narcos, and the truth about what you would really be willing to do if you were thirsty enough; just these elements alone and the way that McBride uses them are enough to make a pretty effective scary book. But as if that wasn't enough already, he takes it a step further and ups the ante considerably by introducing a terrifying creature that hunts the group in the middle of all this as they try to make their way through the desert.
The day was not even half over and already I was no longer praying for the sun to set, but for my death, when it came, to be swift and merciful. 
I also really loved the novel's structure, cutting back and forth between the border agents' nighttime search and the first-hand account of what happened. The parallel stories work in tandem, each informing the other and raising the tension in each section even more. And McBride doesn't pussy out and hold back on the horror. There were many times here that my skin crawled and my mouth dropped open because I couldn't believe that this was all happening! And McBride does a great job with detailing the characters as well, especially our main heroine, but also all of the supporting cast as well, even though most of them remain nameless. I noticed a few editing mistakes, but it was a great read for October, one of the best written horror novels I've come across, and definitely the best book I've read from DarkFuse.

It was the smell of death, a death for which I had far too recently prayed, but one I now knew I wanted no part of, an abstraction made far too real. I refused to die in this place. Not down here where my soul would forever remain outside of the reach of God, destined to wander the darkness, holding the hand of La Santa Muerte.