Tuesday, February 24, 2009
With that aside, this book is simply a collection of four public domain tales of suspense, all of which were penned by classic and respected authors. The stories include:
The Black Cat, by Edgar Allen Poe - Poe's eternal cautionary tale for anyone thinking of combining uxoricide with minor home improvements.
Rappaccini's Daughter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne - A moral-heavy tale of poisonous science, poisonous love, poisonous dating, and poisonous flowers. Considering that Poe was often critical of Hawthorne's works, it is slightly ironic that these two tales were placed together in this book.
The House and the Brain, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton - Originally published as The Haunted and the Haunters, this is a classic haunted house story.
The Trial for Murder, by Charles Allston Collins and Charles Dickens - These two famous authors teamed up to tell this rather meager tale of clairvoyance and jury duty.
Green Tea, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu - One in a series of mystery/suspense stories starring the deductive Dr. Martin Hesselius, in which a distraught clergyman is haunted by a specter in the form of an evil monkey.
A Terribly Strange Bed, by Wilkie Collins - A gambler on a winning streak is attacked by a canopy bed.
Old may not always mean better, but it can often mean cheaper. Chosen primarily for their lack of copyright, these six short stories are all roughly a century older than this book, and considerably older than Basil Rathbone. The oldest among them, Poe's Black Cat, was first published in 1843, a full 122 years before this title's first printing in 1965. While this isn't precisely a bad thing, book readers who purchased this back in the sixties were probably not prepared for a lesson in historical literature of the mid-eighteen hundreds.
There is a rather cool picture of Basil Rathbone's disembodied head on the cover, mind you.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Chances are you haven’t heard of Angel Loves Nobody. I hadn’t when I stumbled upon it at a book sale a few years back. But the description on the cover caught my eye...
“In the locker rooms, in the parking lots, a brilliant student plans his ultimate protest: kill the faculty of Betsy Ross Junior High.”
Considering the paranoia and cautious preventative measures taken after the tragedy of Columbine High School, as well as the number of school shootings since then, you would think a book of this nature would gain a small resurgence of attention. Considering the way the subject matter is handled by the author, the fact that it didn’t borders on a tragedy all its own.
Richard Miles is actually the pen name of Gerald Perrau-Saussine. Born in Tokyo and raised in Los Angeles, he spent his early years as a successful child actor (under the name of Peter of Richard Miles), appearing in films such as Passage to Marseille and The Red Pony, and TV shows including Maverick, Perry Mason, and The Lone Ranger.
In between his childhood acting and his adult career as an educator, Gerald Perrau-Saussine took a brief shot at being a novelist. In the short span of ten years he wrote poems, short stories, and three novels. Two of those novels, Angel Loves Nobody and That Cold Day in the Park, won the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award. That Cold Day in the Park was later adapted into a film directed by Robert Altman. His third book, The Moonbathers, was briefly received.
It is obvious when reading Angel Loves Nobody that Perrau-Saussine was inspired and informed by his experiences as both a student and teacher in the lower-class educational system. He spends an equal amount of time with both sides, exploring not only the origins of their motivation, but in some instances, the frailties of their beliefs.
In the book, Tim Nielson is the new art teacher at Betsy Ross Junior High, a ghetto school with a poor reputation. Mostly poor minority students, many of the kids are troubled youth, almost as convinced of their lack of a future as the bitter and jaded teaching staff. He’s picked a bad time to start his new career, however. One of the school’s most brilliant yet troubled students, Angel Martine, has found a focus for both his intelligence and his inner rage. He has figured out a way to kill the entire staff of Betsy Ross Junior High and get away with it, and has enlisted the entire student body as foot soldiers in his deadly vision. But Angel’s plan is as intricate and delicate as the lives and relationships of those involved. As “Zero Hour” grows near, the reality of the plan takes its toll, exposing many students to hidden emotions and desires they had previously been ignorant of.
This is a long way from The Cross and the Switchblade. None of the characters are simple plot devices or paper thin stereotypes. Many of the troubled teens are dealing with the harsh realities of inner-city life, compounded by indifferent and even hostile home environments (the existence of incestuous abuse and peer rape is examined on more than one occasion). As for the teachers, their indifference and occasionally hostile behavior is not due to overt malice, but to the personal demons they face in their own lives.
One of the most interesting dynamics in the story is the relationship between Angel and Tim. These two characters barely communicate until the book’s climax, but these two intelligent people from different worlds see something in each other. What they see evolves with the story, and their reactions actually manage to influence each other’s opinions. These are complex characters battling complex emotions, and their inner struggles spill effortlessly onto the page. Perrau-Saussine handles the myriad of characters with this level of detail and intensity, continuously reminding the reader that these are real people with real problems, the real solutions to which never come easy.
Angel Loves Nobody is as relevant today as it was in 1967, and is in desperate need of reprinting. Writing of this caliber, and this heartfelt, should never fade with time.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
But the silver screen and boob tube aren't the only fertile domains for arachnid invasions and predatory pests. These killer insects are just as willing to kill us in ink as they are on celluloid. This became more than apparent when I stumbled upon Robert Farley's latest novel, Thripz.
In Thripz, Reporter Nathan Brewster's thinks he smells a story when he reads a police report of an insect attack that suddenly turns into a missing person case.
During his own investigation, Nathan gets his hands on one of the insects and takes it to a nearby college for examination. They soon discover that the insects in question are Thrips, a common yard and garden pest. At least, they were. These have somehow been altered at the genetic level, and are now capable of rapidly metabolizing pesticides and reproducing at an alarming rate.
Before you know it, Nathan and company are drawn into a desperate race to track down the bio-geneticist responsible for this new breed of killers, in the hopes of stopping him before his twisted creation spreads beyond control and swarms over the world in what can only be described as biblical proportions.
Robert Farley's Thripz has everything that you would expect from a sci-fi horror film like the ones mentioned in Monster Rally: Destructive swarms of killer insects, a hapless reporter who unwittingly becomes mankind's last hope, a mad scientist hell-bent on improving on God's design, horrible mutilations, partially devoured victims, and the occasional angry farmer.
Thripz is a fast-paced novel that not only carries on the tradition of such classics as The Hephaestus Plague, but takes the genre to the next level. Not only is it engaging and captivating, it is also scientifically plausible and creatively original. In short, it's a damn good read.
Just don't read it anywhere that insects tend to congregate. They might realize that we're on to them.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Considering this desire to hang on to every bit of history that we can, it is almost unfathomable that the state of Pennsylvania is ready and willing to close the doors on the nation's oldest standing library.
Constructed in 1743, the Darby Free Library has the distinction of being older than the United States of America. But with budget restrictions due partly to the growing economic crisis, and partly to the abysmal budgetary practices of the state's governing body, the powers that be have decided that shaving a bit of cash off the top of the state's outgoing column is worth boarding up a historical representation of community knowledge and literacy.
The Darby Free Library has been in the news on and off since November, when they first got the word that they would be closing on December 31st. Since then, they have been flooded with donations from book-lovers and historically-minded citizens who can't stand the thought of losing such a precious American Historical Icon. The publicity hasn't managed to shame the state's government into fixing their mistake, but the donations they have received have managed to delay the closing, and so the doors on the nation's oldest standing library are still open.
I don't post news flashes of every cause seek donations that pops up on the AP. As a matter of fact, I've never promoted a cause seeking donations at all. But as an author and book lover, I feel the need to spread the word about this one.
Of course, spreading the word is good, but talk is cheap. So, I have already sent a small donation to the Darby Free Library. I urge you to do the same, even if it is only a dollar or two. You can easily donate to the library through their website using PayPal. If they can raise the equivalent of $5 per member of their community, they can keep the library open another year, and give the State of Pennsylvania's head honchos some time to pull their collective head out of their ass.
Florida Roadkill is the first in a long series of novels featuring everyone's favorite obsessive/manic/psychopathic madman, Serge, and his lovable substance abusing sidekick, Coleman. It is also Tim Dorsey's first novel.
As debut novels go, Dorsey nails his audience right out of the gate. While his later books do become slightly more polished and streamlined, there is little in Florida Roadkill that would seem alien to anyone who started with his later works first. Dorsey's voice is consistent and unfaltering.
The key word is Madness. Dorsey's Florida is a land overflowing with criminals, lunatics, swindlers, scumbags, and cold-blooded killers. But he manages to make the this dangerous god-forsaken tourist trap a colorful and humorous at every turn. If you never thought you would find serial killers, drug dealers, real estate scam artists, and violent biker gangs funny, then Florida Roadkill will definitely surprise you. The Riders of Eternal Doom, for example, are the most memorable and laughable biker gang since the Black Widows first attempted to terrorize Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way but Loose.
Dorsey embraces the narrative format of jumping back and forth between seemingly unconnected people and events, all of which eventually tie in together, and in a very non-linear format. But he manages to weave these snippets into a chaotic tapestry that never confuses or discourages. He knows how to keep the readers interested, and exactly how far he can string them along before revealing the connections. In short, he's a storyteller, and a damn good one at that.
Humorous Floridian criminals are not an untapped resource, and Dorsey is well aware of this. He not only knows that he has others authors of such novels to contend with, he acknowledges it by including guest appearances by Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry. A humbling and tongue-in-cheek tip of the hat, it shows that Dorsey isn't afraid of the competition. He shouldn't be, either, as his writing never borders on imitation. He's carved out his own stomping ground in Florida, and rightfully declared it his own.
The newest book in the Serge series, Nuclear Jellyfish, has just been released. If you start now, you can make it through the series before the next installment hits the stands. I highly recommend you give it a shot.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
James Adkisson, the gunman who walked into a Unitarian Universalist Church with a shotgun and opened fire on the congregation (who were watching children perform their rendition of Annie), was sentenced to life in prison today. As part of his final statement, Adkisson released a four-page manifesto, which he had originally intended to be his suicide note if he was killed by police during his rampage.
A Vietnam-era veteran with alcohol abuse problems, Adkisson had been struggling to find gainful employment. He eventually came to blame Liberals for his problems, and when arrested claimed that his intention had been to kill as many Liberals as possible to send a message to the nation. The four-page manifesto he released to the press goes into great detail about his hatred of all things left-wing, and serves up one especially noticeable paragraph (emphasis added):
"This was a symbolic killing. Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg's book. I'd like to kill everyone in the mainstream media. But I know those people were inaccessible to me. I couldn't get to the generals & high ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers, the chickenshit liberals that vote in these traitorous people. Someone had to get the ball rolling. I volunteered. I hope others do the same. It's the only way we can rid America of this cancerous pestilence."
The book that Adkisson is referring to is Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken is #37). In the book, Goldberg rants on how people like Tim Robbins, Norman Mailer, Howard Stern and Gloria Steinem are destroying America from the inside out (Spoiler Alert: Michael Moore is #1). He actually followed it up in 2006 with 110 People Who Are Screwing Up America, because you never want a list of such magnitude to become outdated.
After the shooting, once Adkisson proclaimed his motives and intentions, a lot of people started screaming that this was proof that the hate-speech being spewed by the hard-right was actually inciting hatred and violence in its audience. Those claims have now been somewhat validated.
Granted, this was definitely not the name that many people were hoping would pop up. Those who are disgusted by the right-wing-talking-head-propaganda machine were really holding out for something bigger; a last minute shout-out to Sean Hannity, a Rush Is My Spirit Guide bumper sticker, or even a complete collection of Anne Coulter's books, signed by Coulter with the inscription "Go get'em, Tiger!"
Hannity, O'Reilly or Limbaugh would have been major Conservative Icons worth raking across the coals for their incendiary and inciting diatribes. Goldberg, for the most part, is just a big-mouthed stooge who pisses and moans that every negative thing said about Republicans in the media or the entertainment industry is proof of a vast left-wing conspiracy to drown out the true voice of America. His latest book, A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media, is 184 pages of him complaining that the News Media gave Obama a free pass to the White House. For anyone who actually paid attention during the elections, this assessment is complete crap. But, hey, whatever makes you feel better.
But the point of this, the importance of Goldberg's name actually appearing in Adkisson's Manifesto, is that most of the right-wing ranting and posturing is designed to make people worse. People like Adkisson, down on their luck and easily influenced, turn to these people not because they offer hope or answers, but because they offer them someone to hate.
Adkisson was told that the Liberals are to blame for the shape of the economy. He was told that the Liberals are letting foreigners into the country to live off welfare and take the jobs away from Americans like him. He was told that the Liberals hate God and Christianity, and are trying to destroy (Christian) religion by stopping prayer in schools, letting Gays get married, and taking the Christ out of Christmas. He was told that the Liberals wanted to destroy the American way of life and turn it into a Communist/Socialist/Marxist One World Order. Oh, and Liberals hate the troops and want America to lose the war.
Adkisson believed them. He believed that the country he fought for and loved was under attack. So he loaded a shotgun, marched into a non-Christian church known to perform outreach programs for Gays, and started shooting.
Congratulations, Bernie. Your sales should go up with this news. All that fear mongering and alarm-sounding have finally paid off. One of your biggest fans took your book and turned it into a hit list. Of course, I'm not implying that you intending anyone to go out and harm others when you wrote any of your books. Then again, you and your cronies have been screaming at that top of your lungs for years that the American Way as we know it is under constant attack by the evil Liberals. What else did you expect a God-fearing Patriot to do?
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
A compelling and straight-forward plot. The big twist? Eric, the crime boss, and all of the other characters in the book are stuffed animals. They live in a world completely populated by stuffed animals, in which the young and old are delivered and taken away by pick-up trucks. It is definitely an interesting plot twist. But is it necessary?
The idea isn't completely original (The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime, Meet the Feebles), but that doesn't mean it isn't good. It just means that the author might want to approach the concept from an original angle.
Tim Davys does, but he unfortunately decides to play it straight. The idea of stuffed animals in a detective mystery novel begs for plenty of sarcastic tongue-in-cheek humor, but Amberville avoids silly humor and instead relies on the subtle absurdities (a small stuffed dove as a crime kingpin, for example) to deliver the humor on their own, which they never really manage to do. Even the author's approach to the way characters are named in Amberville (simply a first name followed by the type of stuffed animal they are), shows a lack of desire to truly have fun with the concept. In short, things that should be comical or farcical are just as boring as they would be in the real world.
The result is a story that could easily be translated into a realistic, non-fantasy setting and written as a straight hardboiled noir novel. Amberville doesn't necessarily fail at making the concept work, it just doesn't fully convince the reader that fantastical setting was crucial to the story.
Amberville is supposed to reveal truths about human nature, morality, religion, and the concepts of good and evil, by having stuffed animals act out the scenarios in which these philosophical debates occur. This is where the book does fail, much in the same way that White Man's Burden failed. Changing reality in some ironic or absurd way might seem deep and meaningful at first. But unless there are other connections on multiple levels, all that you are left with is an overused gimmick.
Amberville is a good book. It has a compelling story, interesting characters, and enough twists and turns to keep a mystery lover interested until the end. It just doesn't quite manage to be what it wanted to be, and that's what keeps it from being a great book.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Friday, February 6, 2009
It all started during a visit to a local Borders book store last Spring. I was browsing around, not looking for anything in particular, and decided to take a look at what was on the shelves of the Horror section.
But I couldn't find it. I spent a good ten or twelve minutes pacing up and down the isles, sure that I had simply overlooked or missed it. Finally fed up, I confronted the guy at the Information Desk, who informed me that they no longer had a Horror section.
I'm not proud of it, but I will admit that I spent several minutes arguing with this poor clerk, who obviously had no direct say in corporate policy. I asked him what they did with Stephen King, Charlaine Harris, Michael Laimo, Douglas Clegg, Bryan Smith, Brian Keene, John Saul, Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum?
"You can find them mixed in the 'Literature' section."
I checked other stores in the chain, and even jumped over to a few Barnes & Nobles, in the hopes that this was an isolated incident. But it wasn't. The major bookseller chains have, for some reason or another, declared that Horror is no longer a viable genre. Even iconic horror novels like Dracula and Frankenstein have been given the boot over to the "Classic Literature" department, where they can rub shoulders with Ethan Frome and Anna Karenina. No matter how gruesome, bloody, or horrific it is, you aren't going to find it labeled as Horror.
But that's it! Maybe this is just the corporate big-wigs protecting themselves from some imagined stigma. I'll bet that the smaller, independently owned bookstores aren't running scared from a legitimate genre with a huge fan base! To prove my point, I hit the website IndieBound, dedicated to promoting local privately owned businesses, grabbed the addresses of half a dozen nearby independent bookstores, and went on a little road trip.
I succeeded in proving myself wrong.
Most of the stores I visited did indeed have Horror sections, but for the most part they seemed generally ignored and left to their on devices. If the Horror section was there, it was very well hidden.
I asked the owner of one store why his Horror section was only three shelves of one bookcase. He replied that no one seemed to buy anything from that section, so he had to cut down. I took a closer look at the shelves and found that ninety-percent of his Horror section consisted of three authors; Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Saul. Of those three authors, ninety-percent of the titles were reprints of older titles. No wonder your Horror books aren't selling, when the bulk of your selection can be found at any yard sale for a nickel a piece.
Almost all of the other local bookstores were the same. They figured that Horror doesn't sell well, so they only stocked well-known authors that have already sold millions, not taking into account that this means millions of people already own these books. What they were all missing were new Horror authors, up-and-coming Horror stars with small followings, and Horror novels from small independent presses.
The last store I visited was the scariest of them all. It was just a local town book store, and the owner was that kind of straightforward that bordered on rude. She didn't stock Horror or Science Fiction books because, honestly, her customers didn't buy those kinds of books.
Three things about this statement struck me as funny. First, she told me this during the peak shopping time on a weekend, and the store was completely empty; I was her only customer. Second, her clerk behind her was noticeably entering books into an online database, leading me to believe that they sold books online as well (most bookstores these days make roughly 80% of their profits online) to a universal retail market. Third, she had just lost me as a potential customer, thus proving her self-fulfilling prophecy as spot-on accurate.
All of this left me somewhat depressed. Were all of these people correct? Was Horror on the way out? Had the world as a whole given up on scary books, and I just hadn't received the memo in time? Is Horror dead? This concept was jarring to me not only as a fan of Horror novels, but as an author currently at work on a Horror novel of my own. Was this the end for all that I loved? Should I abandon my second draft, start writing a self-help book with cooking recipes, and trade in my copy of Castaways for Marley & Me?
Just to make sure, I went to Amazon's main page and clicked on the link for the top twenty-five sellers. The list is updated by the hour, so I knew I wasn't getting any long term data. But still, even a list of the top twenty-five sellers on a Friday afternoon should be a good indicator of how bad things are for Horror novels.
The results? Out of the top twenty-five best selling novels in that hour alone, nine of them were Horror related. Granted, a good portion of them were related to Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, but that just cheered me up even more. Here is a series of Vampire novels that not only became a top-selling series, but gave birth to the seventh-highest grossing film of 2008.
So what does this mean? Horror novels (and films as well) are still raking in the money, but no one in a position to cash in seems to want to call it what it is. Has the genre as a whole gone underground? Let's be honest with ourselves; Horror has always been underground. It's the black sheep of the literary world, the dirty little secret that nobody wants to recognize as a viable entry into the art world that is literature. Do you read Maya Angelou? Of course! Did you purchase the newest politician's autobiography? Well, I do like to keep informed. Did you see Jack Ketchum's latest novel? What am I, fifteen? I don't read scary books!
But millions of people are, and I know you are. You're buying them new, purchasing them used, and swapping them with friends. But for some reason, the bookstores are ashamed of you. They want you to sneak in and hunt for your Horror novel in the general fiction section. They've taken away your Horror section so you don't hang around and browse, on the off-chance that you might scare off their real customers who are just swinging by to pick up the latest self-absorbed addiction/abused/mental illness autobiography. And your local privately-owned bookstores, the ones who don't want you to shop at the big commercial chains with wider variety and better selection, they're unhappy with you because you haven't bought that copy of Pet Sematary that's been sitting there since 2003.
So what can you as a Horror fan do? How do you deal with a retail market that doesn't respect you as viable customer? The answer is simple.
Don't shop there.
The bookstores need you, not the other way around. You like a Horror author that the bookstores either don't carry or hide away next to the Clancy novels? Go to his publisher's site and buy directly from them. Even better, go to the Author's website and order an autographed copy directly from him, let him know you care. Or buy it on Amazon. If the Border's chains and Mom & Pop bookstores want to compete with the online Goliath, maybe they should offer more to their customers than overpriced coffee and disdain for their reading choices.
Of course, when I went to browse books at Amazon, guess which genre didn't turn up? That's right, no Horror. They've got a Horror section alright, but it is a sub-category under Literature.
I didn't say it was going to be easy.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Why the Long Face? is the exception to the rule. Ron Maclean's collection of short stories vary in their style, subject matter, prose, and impact, yet every story shines as a perfect example of what a short story should be. MacLean's stories convey the emotions of the characters, the longing and suffering, confusion and contemplation, with elegance and skill. The world these stories take place in is eerie, bizarre, almost surrealistic, and yet all too familiar.
Short stories are an art form in themselves. Ron MacLean's Why the Long Face? is truly a work of art.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Blackbird’s Godfather, Denver based bail bondsman CJ Floyd, is in Hawaii on his honeymoon. To help out the investigation, he not only sends his former Marine intelligence operative partner to lend a hand, but also lends helpful guidance and suggestions over the phone. As Damion and an assortment of shady and sometimes dangerous acquaintances dig deeper into the murder, they begin to unravel a conspiracy of corruption and lies that extend farther beyond the basketball court than anyone had imagined.
Greer’s novel is a captivating, quick-paced mystery with personal conflict, local history, and underworld manipulations weaved throughout. While the story is worth reading, there are a few hurdles that keep it from being a completely smooth ride.
There are plenty of colorful and interesting characters populating the late Blackbird’s world, and this is always a plus for mystery novels. However, the drawback in this case is that they tend to overwhelm the reader by sheer number. Similar sounding names and overlapping character quirks and backgrounds can sometimes make it difficult to tell them apart, and only add to the confusion.
Another minor flaw with the narrative is the author’s unskillful way of explaining back story. Past events, character backgrounds, and expositional material are often thrust into descriptive passages and supposedly casual dialogue in big meaty fistfuls, making them tough to chew and hard to digest. Greer has a very complex and multi-layered story to tell, and there is so much needed background that he can sometimes seem desperate to unload it all.
These flaws, while unavoidable, are minor nonetheless, and are easily overlooked as Damion’s investigation draws you further into a world that neither he nor the reader ever though existed. This latest entry in the CJ Floyd series may not be the best, but it is far from the worst, and definitely worth a look.
Spencer Quinn has introduced an original and captivating twist into the Detective novel genre with the first of the Chet and Bernie mystery series. Bernie is a down-on-his-luck Private Investigator, and Chet is his lovable and faithful canine sidekick. It might seem strange that the detective's dog should get top billing, but this is because the entire story is told from Chet's point of view.
This is a little bit different. James Qwilleran might have solved countless crimes with his Siamese cats Koko and Yum Yum, but neither feline has ever bothered to narrate a story for their master. With a narrative device like this, there is a risk of being too campy or silly. Yet Quinn dodges both dangers and delivers a furry Watson that actually manages not to stray too far from believability.
This is mainly due to Chet. It's hard not to like Chet, and his observations on human events and actions manage to be quite humorous, endearing, an occasionally insightful. This might leave his owner Bernie in the backseat in several parts of the story, but the book never suffers from it.
Let's hope there future adventures in store for Chet and Bernie, because finishing this book definitely leaves you wanting more.