Horrific Fun: “Sanctuary” and more…

 

I know I mentioned this back in October, but I have a story in Corrogatio IV: The Midnight Massacre from CrushPop Productions, which is a collection of horror, gore-core, and thrash type stories. It’s FREE to download here if you want to check it out! Seriously, go check it out. I’ll wait…

Now.

If you enjoyed my piece, “Sanctuary” you will be excited to hear that I will be doing a fiction series for CPOP that builds on this story. I’ve got the whole thing plotted out, and just got the go ahead to start writing. I finished my draft of Season Episode One today and plan to finish one episode a week until I have the first season completed. These are, of course, drafts. So I’ll need some time to fine tune it afterwards and I’m not sure when the release is going to be, but I expect sometime in the second half of the year.

I don’t want to give too much away until it’s all finalized, but I think I can safely say… post-apocalyptic vampire hunters are coming your way. And it’s going to be glorious.

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Fantasy Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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I just finished reading My Soul to Keep, a supernatural suspense novel from 1997, written by Tananarive Due. I had never heard of Due or her African Immortals series until stumbling upon a suggestion from a “Women of Horror” reading recommendations list. My Soul to Keep is not what I would call a horror novel, exactly. It is pretty scary, but not in a gory gross-out kind of way. Due masterfully integrates the supernatural into a vividly realistic story about Jessica and David, a seemingly perfect middle class African American family with a 5 year old daughter, as they navigate successful careers, marital bliss, and a series of devastating losses.

I’m torn on how I feel about this novel, and I think I’ll have to continue in the series to decide for sure. On one hand, I love Due’s take on the theme of immortality that has been so popular for the last twenty years. If you love vampire books but are tired of vampires, this is a great place to start. Due also tackles some interesting aspects of human history that most popular titles gloss over or avoid entirely, with a focus on African and Middle Eastern history rather than European.

However, the focus of the novel seemed to be on the inexplicable love between Jessica and David, which I just could not get into. From the very beginning, David’s character really rubbed me the wrong way. He’s controlling, condescending, and emotionally manipulative. Jessica is a bright, driven young woman who seems to have fallen for a guy because he’s good looking and good in bed (which–SPOILER ALERT!–he should be after 500 years experience).

The true horror of this novel is their relationship, and I’m not sure yet whether or not that was Due’s intent. I’m a bit cynical after the barrage of novels that romanticize abusive relationships in recent years (and, lets face it, these kinds of stories have a long history–from Wuthering Heights to Twilight and on). As the novel progresses, David gets more and more abusive, and it gets harder and harder to understand why Jessica puts up with it. But we all know people in relationships like this; Due’s story is frustratingly believable. What makes me uneasy is that, even by the end of the novel, it’s not clear whether or not we are supposed to love David like Jessica does or if their love is the horror of the novel.

It wasn’t until the very end of the novel that I could say whether or not I liked it. Due’s writing is lush, and often brilliant. Her characters certainly evoke an emotional response. But when the novel ended, I was still angry. I wanted redemption for Jessica and some kind of punishment for David, and while Due hints that this is where the series is going, you have to read on to find out for sure. But there was enough resolution that I did end feeling like there was hope, and this makes me want to read at least the next book in the series.

I suspect that Due intended for Jessica and David’s relationship to be unsettling. If she did, she executed it beautifully, and my own discomfort is testimony to that. Her depiction of David from his own POV is unequivocally selfish and greedy even as he is professing his love (obsession) for Jessica. I doubt very much that a writer of Due’s skill would make this mistake. But we never really learn how much of this Jessica sees for herself by the end of the novel, and so the emotional arc of Book One feels incomplete.

I’ll definitely read on, though. And I think I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy, supernatural suspense, paranormal thrillers, and yes, paranormal romance. Have you read it? What did you think? How about the rest of the series? Let me know in the comments!

SF/Fantasy Review: Bitten by Kelly Armstrong

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4/5 Stars

I can’t even remember why I bought this book in the first place. Werewolves are not really my thing. Well, they might be my thing if the YA paranormal romance genre hadn’t had them declawed and neutered since the literary apocalypse that is Twilight. I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer’s “work,” or seen any of the glittering tween-porn it spawned. But I think it’s safe to say that Twilight ruined everything, forever. I steadfastly refused to be swayed on this point. Suck it.

Reading the book jacket and any plot summaries I’ve found places Bitten firmly in the paranormal romance camp. Why did I buy it? Was I drunk? Probably. I have no idea. Maybe it was the “erotically charged thriller” tagline that got me, at least I knew it wasn’t going to be YA. But whatever my reasoning at the time, I did buy it. And then I forgot about it. And then I found it, thought WTF is this?!? and read it.

And holy shit.

I might be in love with Kelley Armstrong. Like in the kind of way that might compel me to move to Ontario, stalk her, and try to suck her brain juice out with a green swirly straw. Not really, though. If that ever happens, it wasn’t me.

Now, that’s not to say that Bitten is without flaws. I found it really slow to start, for one. I felt no real connection to the first few casualties of werewolf on werewolf violence—though I felt I was supposed to. I found the sex scenes boring and mostly unnecessary (Are sex scenes ever necessary? Maybe not. But they don’t have to be boring). There was a little too much focus on Changing just to play tag in the forest—I get it, wolves are fun and playful sometimes; time to move on. And Sometimes I wanted to smack our heroine upside the head.

I think the idea of The Pack knowing everything there is to know about all the mutts (lone werewolves) in the whole world is ridiculous. There are like six of them in the Pack. They’d be lucky to be able to control their territory in New York (face it, they did a shitty job of controlling mutts in their own town). And I don’t believe for one second that Elena would be the only female werewolf in existence. Surely if she were such a coveted prize, werewolves would be biting women left right and centre for a chance at their own furry fuckmate. Let’s get real.

But! There was so much good and refreshing about this book that I’m willing to overlook all that other stuff. And I don’t do this lightly, believe me. First of all, Kelley Armstrong is Canadian and she doesn’t pretend that she’s not. A good chunk of the novel happens in Toronto, she references Vancouver, the Robert Pickton murders, the Separatist movement. And she does it without tooting her little “Oh! Canada” horn. Second, Elena Michaels is the best female narrator I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. She’s all hard edges and no fluff. She doesn’t just play at being tough, she’s a cold mother-fucker. She likes sex and doesn’t apologize for it, and it’s never implied that she should apologize for it (why is this so fucking rare?!?) She screws up, but in believable ways that are consistent with what we know of her character. She fights those animal urges for violence and loses. Next to Clay, Elena is the most violent and impulsive member of the Pack. She’s refreshing. Not always likeable, but refreshing.

Violence in a werewolf story should be mandatory. No one wants to read about werewolves as domesticated pets. And by that I mean, I don’t want to. A good werewolf story needs a certain amount of blood and gore. Sex is optional. Blood and gore is not. I mean, what’s the fun in being a werewolf if you don’t get to disembowel the occasional person? Don’t lie. If you were a werewolf, it’s the first thing you’d try. Okay, after you ate the neighbours Chihuahuas. Maybe. Why gloss over the good stuff just to become another bodice ripper?

I know, I know. It’s called paranormal romance for a reason. But why is that the only place to find vampires and werewolves these days? Who turned these once terrifying monsters into Valentine’s day fodder? Everyone has sex (eventually, I hope). Reading about it is never as fun as actually doing it, so what’s the point? I refuse to believe that there are that many women out there sitting at home not getting any. If you are, stop it. There’s no reason for your suffering. Then maybe we can take back the monsters for the horror genre. We miss them here on the other side.

Now, we’ve all imagined getting to rip the throats out of our enemies and chew on their spleen. I’m sure we’ve all imagined it. Of course you have. I’m not just some kind of freak. This is the animal impulse that intrigues me, not sex. Our capacity for violence is what connects us to and separates us from other animals, and Armstrong does a fabulous job of exploring these ideas. Both thematically and in its plot, Bitten is a far more complex read that I ever would have guessed, even if we have to forgive a few flaws to see it. I personally felt that there was a little too much emphasis placed on the romantic sub plot, particularly because the main plot was more than strong enough on its own. However, the complexity of this main plot is enough to elevate the novel to true Speculative Fiction from the dregs of the appalling sub-genric slime that is paranormal romance. A rare feat, indeed. That’s some sticky shit.

Fantasy Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

3/5 Stars

A Discovery of Witches was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t really know what to expect, coming into it, which is probably a good thing. I hate having a book built up in my mind before I start, and the inevitable disappointment after imagining that it will be different than it is. Deborah Harkness’ debut novel came up as a book recommendation based on other books I’ve read. I gave the blurb a cursory glance, decided it had all the makings for a nice fluffy read next time my brain was too tired for “real” books, and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart. “Magic Realism” is a kind of cotton candy genre for me. They are light and sweet and disappear too quickly. And when I’m finished I have that twinge of guilt that I shouldn’t have gone there, and I worry about rotting some important bits of my head.

But A Discovery of Witches did not end up being the fluffy read I imagined it to be. Harkness has built a surprisingly complex world in which three supernatural species—witches, daemons, and vampires—coexist, mostly unnoticed, with humans. She works a vast amount of history, science, and religion into this world and blends the lines between them quite seamlessly. A large portion of the novel is set in Oxford, particularly the Bodleian Library, where an enchanted text from the 1500’s finds its way into the hands of our heroine—Dr. Diana Bishop is a Scientific Historian—as she is researching her latest paper on alchemical poetry. Bishop, though she is a witch by birth, has long since denied her magical heritage and wants nothing to do with the shimmering book before her. She promptly sends it back to the stacks, and tries to forget about it. Which, of course, is never going to work. Her denial of the book sends a shockwave into the supernatural community, and suddenly Diana Bishop is thrust into the very world she has been avoiding for her entire life.

Now I didn’t go to school anywhere near as awesome as Oxford, but Harkness had me yearning for those early years of university. Reading it makes me reconsider my decision not to pursue a career in education. Oddly, the most “magical” aspects of this book for me were Harkness’ simple descriptions of that great, historical campus and the vast libraries, coffee shops, and academic fuss-budgets that are at the heart of any college or university.

Even better, is the fact that Harkness has peppered the text with beautiful little excerpts of poetry from some of my favourite writers—and some I’m not familiar with—which she almost seems to have written the text around. If you are in any way a lit geek, this book holds more than a few thrills. Harkness also uses folklore and mythology to her advantage. Myth enriches her story when she decides to embrace it, but she’s not afraid to deconstruct it intelligently when it doesn’t suit her purpose.

My only complaint about A Discovery of Witches is that it leans a little more heavily on the romantic subplots than runs to my taste. The star-crossed lovers theme has never been my thing. When the lovers in question are a witch and a vampire, my cheese-o-meter starts flashing. Their love, however idealistic and sickeningly sweet it is, is actually integral to the main plot, though. And so I will forgive it. But please, Harkness, if you’re going to make me sit through chapter after chapter of goo-goo eyes and endless descriptions of what vampire breath smells like (if it’s not blood, I’m not interested) you’d better make with the fucky-fucky. Seriously. If Diana and Matthew don’t have wild monkey sex in the first three chapters of the sequel I’m going to be writing a strongly worded letter.

Okay, that’s not my only complaint. The book moves a little too slowly at times. Diana seems to spend an inordinate amount of time denying the fact that she is a witch given the fact that she has been shooting sparks out of her fingers, reading people minds, and calling on torrents of wind and water every time she has an emotional breakdown. It felt a little bit like Diana’s acceptance of her situation was being dragged out so that the rest of the plot could catch up.

Also, Matthew is annoying. And his bleeding heart routine kinda made me want to stake him. In real life people lose friends, lovers, children, family, to any number of things: war, illness, car accidents, vengeful lovers, wild animal attacks, whatever. Death happens. For the most part, we expect a person to move on from loss within a reasonable amount of time. Of course you won’t forget the people you love, but if you lose your partner in your twenties and are still emotionally crippled by the loss when you’re eighty, there’s probably something wrong with you. Now, imagine you’re a two thousand year old vampire. Imagine that you lost your wife and child to some epidemic in the year 535BC. Shitty, right? Sure. But I’m pretty sure you’ve gotten over it by the time 2012 rolls around. Just sayin’.

Anyways, I prefer my vampires to be bloodthirsty assholes, I guess. And although Matthew spends a decent amount of time being an asshole it’s usually because he’s trying to hide his tender soul from the rest of the world. It’s all a little too cutesy.

All in all, I’m giving A Discovery of Witches 3 stars. The world building on its own deserves at least 4.5, but the characters fall a little flat for me. Or the dynamic between the two MC’s did. I realize that a lot of this has to do with personal expectations and tastes, so I’m not going to weigh characterization as heavily as I would if the plot and setting had been mediocre. I’m going to give Harkness the benefit of the doubt and assume Diana and Matthew’s relationship will gain a little more depth in the next book. Or at least hope their hormones get as much play time as their hearts did in book one.

Horror Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Oh god.

It took me so long to finish this book. I’ve probably tried to read this thing at least a dozen times in my (not-so) short life, and I always made it to the end of Jonathan Harker’s journal and then BLAM! I’d hit the wall of drivel that is Mina and Lucy’s journals and letters to one another. Instant boredom.

Well this time, I pushed through. Mainly, because I started reading it as a free-download on my iPhone when we were motorcycle camping this summer and I had no other choice. Phil fell asleep within 10 minutes of my reading aloud, without fail. Even in the scary bits. But, low and behold, things do get interesting again! And I got far enough into it that I had to finish, even when it bogs down again innumerable times throughout.

I don’t know, maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood to read Stoker. Sometimes I can breeze through the classics without trouble—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t last a day in my hands, nor did the Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights—and sometimes they make me want to bang my head against the wall until I pass out. Dracula has moments of genuine brilliance, it really does. There are subtle scenes in this book that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck the way modern horror never can with its tell-all style. Stoker had a gift for horror. Unfortunately he drowns it in tedium.

In part, I think, I take issue with his structural choice—the letters, journals, telegrams, and newspaper clippings—which, although it is an intriguing idea, didn’t really pan out the way I’d hoped. This style, I believe, was used to add “credibility” to his story. The Victorian gothic was all about making readers believe in the stories of horror they read so avidly (similar to the travel fiction that was popular before and after), and I can see how this stylistic approach would achieve this for Stoker’s readers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate for modern readers. What we have instead is a text that dissociates the reader from the narrative, by putting us at an arm’s-length of the action, rather than immersing us in it. This, combined with the necessarily repetitive nature of multi-faceted POV’s really bogs down the pace of the story.

The story, I should point out, was excellent. I think Dracula would not have suffered had it been pared down by 200 or so pages. But the real meat of the tale is great. Stoker drew from a lot of vampire mythology to create a text that has defined the genre for more than a century afterwards. Having just finished I am Legend I can see a lot of Matheson’s choices as a reflection of the myth that Stoker built (indeed, Matheson’s protagonist initially uses Dracula as a kind of how-to manual for killing vampires). Until Anne Rice picked up the torch in the ‘90’s, redefining the genre for a new generation, I would argue that no one has had such an influence on vampire literature as Stoker has.

So. Was it a slow go? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely. I think anyone with an interest in mythology and folklore should read this book; it’s full of interesting tidbits and really makes you think about how stories evolve and are passed down through the ages. Also, anyone with an interest in modern vamp-lit should give it a try, to see what the original blood-sucking fiend was all about. Unless your reading level has stagnated at Stephanie Meyer’s slush bucket of sparkle vamps and angst-ridden puppy-lovers, you don’t want to hurt yourself. Was Stoker the first to pick up the vampire myth and bring it to a new audience? No. But no one can deny that he popularized the genre, and I believe there was a reason for that. It might have taken me two months to get through (an unheard-of marathon for me), but I’d do it again!

SF/Horror Book Review: I am Legend by Richard Matheson

I’m giving this particular edition three stars, because I’m reviewing the book as a whole—not just the iconic titular work. “I am Legend” is, hands down, the best story in this collection. And when I bought this book on Amazon (don’t shoot me) I didn’t realize that it was anything more than Matheson’s famous dystopian novella.

If I was reviewing “I am Legend” alone, this would be a 4 star review, maybe even 4.5. After all, it is the vampire novel that gave birth to zombie fiction!

Wait, what?

No, really. Although Matheson’s tale features the last man alive in a battle for survival against a host of vampires, “I am Legend” is much more akin to the zombie lit that has followed, than what we (or I should say, I) associate with modern vampire fiction. I never really jumped on the zombie bandwagon, but I have always enjoyed a good vampire tale (Anne Rice defined my angsty teenage years), and I think that Matheson succeeds in both genres. What is even more impressive is that “I am Legend” was written in 1954, and has influenced countless contemporary masters of horror and SF since.

Of course, “I am Legend” is not the first vampire novel (novella, in this case), nor is it the first dystopian or plague novel for that matter. Detractors from this work love to point this out as if not being the first somehow negates the work’s influence on popular culture. One gets the feeling that some of these people still believe in “original” art, as if there is such a thing as a completely new idea. Sorry, folks, it’s all been done before. Literature is an evolution of ideas. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, and done better. That’s the fun of writing, isn’t it? Expressing old ideas in new ways?

“I am Legend” is a moody, self-reflective tale about the end of the world. Robert Neville, the protagonist, battles fear, loneliness, anger, and despair as the last human being untouched by the plague that has turned the rest of the world into vampires. He’s perhaps not a likeable character, he spends a lot of time wallowing in self-pity and drinking himself into a stupor, but that’s not to say that he’s not a believable character. Matheson’s prose is descriptive without being flowery, the repetition of scenes and themes that many found irritating, to me served to build an idea of the necessarily mundane routine of Neville’s life. He is confined to a small area of the city, defined by how far he can go and still make it back to the safety of his house by sundown. His life consists of gathering supplies, maintaining his property, dispatching any vampires he finds and, later on, researching the plague. When something disturbs this routine, such as finding the dog or the woman, the reader is shocked—as Neville is shocked—as much by the disturbance as by how little it takes to make a profound impact on a lonely man’s existence.

The story is only about 170 pages long, so the tedium of Neville’s world doesn’t bog the reader down (or I didn’t find it did). Had it been longer, I think Matheson would have needed to add more action to maintain the pace of the story, but this would have detracted from the intensely moody landscape he’s built. It is the lack of action that is so disturbing in “I am Legend,” and that is what makes the ending so shocking, in contrast. Neville’s perspective shifts so suddenly that it is disorienting, for the reader and for him. The skill with which Matheson delivers the transition of Ben Cortman from antagonist to pitiable victim was gut-wrenching and unexpected. And Neville’s last thought in the novel, the titular phrase “I am Legend,” has chilling implications.

Some people were bothered by Matheson’s “pseudo-science,” finding that his attempts to explain the plague were ham-handed or just silly. But I think they forget that this was written in the mid-1950’s, and that what we recognize as being impossible or implausible today would not necessarily have been so then. I feel it’s an unfair criticism. Even if Matheson should have known better (I have no idea what stage the study of virus and bacteria were at in the ‘50’s) it’s a red herring argument. This is not hard science fiction, the science behind the plague wasn’t important to the story at all. What was important, was seeing a man’s desperate attempt to explain and understand his circumstances. The way that Neville was able to create a sense of normalcy for himself by pursing an answer to the age-old question of why thing happen the way they do. So Matheson’s science is a little far-fetched, I get it. But had it been more plausible, it would have had no effect on the outcome of the story. It was the act of researching that had meaning for Neville, not the answers themselves, in my opinion.

Sadly, the rest of the stories in this collection didn’t really do it for me. I won’t go into them here, as most people who pick up this book are likely only doing so for “I am Legend”, but rate them as follows:

“I am Legend” 4-4.5/5

“Buried Talents” 2/5

“The Near Departed” 1/5

“Prey” 1/5

“Witch War” 1/5

“Dance of the Dead” 3/5

“Dress of White Silk” 2/5

“Mad House” 3/5

“The Funeral” 3/5

“From Shadowed Places” 2/5

“Person to Person” 3.5/5

***A couple of complaints on the edition I bought: Nowhere on the cover, with the exception of some fine print on the back, does this mention that there are other stories than the titular one inside. When I bought it on Amazon (don’t shoot me) I had no idea that this was a collection of short stories. I accidently discovered this when reading a review of “I am Legend” and I realized that the book I was reading was far too thick to be a novella, as the reviewer described it. I guess it’s not a big deal, but I felt kind of deceived…

Worse than this misrepresentation of “I am Legend” as a three-hundred page novel, is the tacky red star on the front of the book proudly proclaiming that the tale is “Now a major motion picture starring Will Smith!”. If they have to do that, why couldn’t it be a sticker? Why print it on there, forever scarring what otherwise was some pretty cool cover art? Especially annoying because the big red star didn’t show up on Amazon’s preview image (not the book’s fault, I guess, but still annoying). Grrr!