Book Review: Detritus, edited by S. S. Michaels and Kate Jonez

S. S. Michaels and Kate Jonez, editors
Omnium Gatherum Media
ISBN: 978-0615587684
2012; $12.99 trade paperback, $2.99 ebook

DETRITUS is an anthology of short stories about collectors and collections. Because it’s a horror-themed anthology, I don’t think I’m ruining anything by telling you that these stories all focus on the obsessive, dark side of collecting, often exploring the ways that such obsessions can become destructive or terrifying.

I myself am a collector. I have a number of collections, though I primarily collect books. With nearly 6,000 books, not to mention thousands more comic books and magazines, my wife – and visitors to my home – would probably describe me as an obsessive collector. But I’m not a hoarder, and my house isn’t (yet) collapsing under the weight of all my books. I don’t just buy books and forget about them. I’ve electronically catalogued all of my books, and continue to spend time maintaining my collection, and the records of the collection. I am not happy when I’m on vacation if I can’t visit a bookstore (or two, or three….) I also care about books as physical objects, as artifacts. I’m interested in the physicality of books almost as much as I’m interested in what books have to say. I like to hold books, open them, examine them, smell them. I enjoy being surrounded by books, preferably my own, but I have spent a considerable chunk of my life in libraries. Books comfort me in a strange way that I find hard to articulate. And I am continually on the hunt for new books, despite the fact that I own several thousand books I have not yet read. Many of these, I must be honest with myself and with you, I will likely never read before I die. Even so, I continue to acquire new books. So that’s a very long way of saying that I have some understanding of the kinds of collectors and collections depicted in the fifteen horror-themed short stories in the collection DETRITUS. They each share the common theme of obsessive collectors and the sometimes unfortunate or even horrifying consequences of people getting too caught up in the act of collecting.

Mild plot spoilers for a few of the stories follow.

Not all the stories were extraordinarily memorable, but I will note a few of my favorites in the collection.

“Mrs. Grainger’s Animal Emporium” by Phil Hickes: A very naughty little boy (we all know the type) has a run-in with the eponymous Mrs. Grainger who owns the new taxidermy shop that has just come to town. Delightfully creepy, it reminds me of the classic EC comic storylines in “Tales from the Crypt” and “Vault of Horror.”

“Candy Lady” by Neil Davies: This begins as a story about a woman who collects creepy dolls in an old house infested by a strange kind of black mold and becomes a story about the end of the world, or at least human civilization. A very powerful tale, I’d actually have liked to see this one expanded. As is, it was almost too terse; I wanted to see it fleshed out even more.

“Heroes and Villains” by Michael Montoure: The unhappy tale of two comic book collectors who have the terrible fate of coming into possession of all the comic books they had ever dreamed of acquiring. A very dark piece about the lengths that the obsession with collecting and possession can take the collector.

The final story in the collection, “The Room Beneath the Stairs” by Kealan Patrick Burke, is also a fun one. Andy visits his Grandma after the death of her husband and discovers that Grandma is just a little creepier than he had imagined.

Collecting was a great theme for a collection of horror shorts. These stories make clear that the fetishization of the objects being collected, the collection as a whole, and the process of collecting can all take the collector down dark paths. A warning that should be heeded by all of us collectors, I suppose. I wish that the collection contained a few more stories I loved, but there are few real clunkers here, just some that are forgettable. I recommend the collection – despite the fact that, like most anthologies, not all the stories were winners – because it has an interesting theme and some stand-out stories. If you consider yourself a “collector” and enjoy horror, you’ll enjoy adding this anthology to your…collection.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Bleeding Season by Greg F. Gifune

bleed_lgGreg F. Gifune is one of those prolific, award-winning authors that I’ve never read and, I’m ashamed to admit, I’d never heard of before giving THE BLEEDING SEASON a try. He’s been writing for more than a decade, but initially, it seems, most of his work was published by small presses in limited editions. There’s no more excuse not to know about this guy: his work has now (all?) been made widely available in new print and electronic editions by DarkFuse. Though THE BLEEDING SEASON was originally published in 2003, DarkFuse brought it back in 2010, and I’m very glad they did.

This is the story of the three survivors of a group of five boyhood friends who are now adults struggling to make sense of their experiences as they realize they didn’t know one of their best friends as well as they thought they did. Boyhood and the lives of boys are rich sources for novelists to explore, and horror novelists have been very successful at plumbing these depths: Stephen King has done this to great effect several times – “The Body” and It come to mind – as has Robert McCammon in Boy’s Life. I’m happy to report that Gifune has also deftly continued this tradition of examining the effects of boyhood on manhood.

Some plot spoilers follow.

Five boys – Tommy, the outgoing leader; Alan, the writer; Rick, the tough guy; Donald, the sensitive kid; and Bernard, the outcast and weirdo – growing up in working-class Potter’s Cove, a small town in coastal Massachusetts, become an unlikely set of best friends. Life never goes as anyone plans, and Tommy’s untimely death at age fifteen shakes the boys; their lives are never the same after that. After high school, the survivors pursue separate paths, but they remain close. Now in their late 30s and unhappy with their own life choices, Alan, Donald, and Rick have to come to terms with Bernard’s recent suicide and the revelations about their friend that surface after his death. Bernard, as it turns out, seems to have been far more than he appeared. He wasn’t just an awkward loser who wore a toupee and sold cars. He had a dark side to him. Possibly a very, very dark side indeed. How deep that darkness went is what they have to discover. Was Bernard really the rapist, torturer, serial killer, and Satanist that some evidence suggests? Could they really have been this wrong about a guy they thought was a close friend for all these years? That’s what Alan, Rick, and Donald have to find out as their own lives unravel and the mutilated bodies of women start appearing.

The story is told in first-person by Alan Chance, the would-be intellectual and writer. Like the rest of the boys, Alan once thought he was destined for greatness. Instead, he’s now a washed-up writer who never published any of his work, but has instead been working as a security guard for most of his adult life in the same small town he grew up in. He thought he was marrying his one true love, but now even that relationship is damaged, perhaps beyond repair. His boyhood friends aren’t in much better shape: Rick is an ex-con with a bad temper who works as a bouncer, despite the fact that he’s entering middle age; Donald, never having come to terms with his sexual identity, has a dead-end office job and an alcohol problem; and Bernard is, well, dead by his own hand at the start of the novel.

There are elements of the supernatural – or at least things that seem supernatural – in THE BLEEDING SEASON, but Gifune treats them with subtlety and grace, leaving the reader uncertain as to the reality of the situation. That’s very much as it should be. There’s nothing heavy-handed about Gifune’s approach here. I should emphasize that this is a work of dark fiction – the protagonists are deeply flawed human beings, not to mention the troubled and seedy secondary characters they encounter – that descends into the depths of human depravity. But it’s also not the kind of horror novel you read if you’re looking for an action-packed thriller. It’s a slow burn, with reveals and twists that reward readers with patience. You have to be willing to let Gifune take you on the journey as he explores these characters and their pasts at his own pace. You won’t regret the trip, you just have to be willing to let the first half of the book unfold. It’s a fun ride.

The negatives of THE BLEEDING SEASON are few: I don’t care for the title (blood doesn’t play an especially resonant role in the novel and Gifune doesn’t do enough with the season theme to warrant using it in the title) and probably just a little too much of the backstory is revealed in “data dumps” from the women Alan ends up querying during his investigation. But ultimately those are small complaints. This is a darn good book. Really, genuinely good. It’s the kind of book I haven’t encountered in a while, and it’s certainly strong enough that I plan to seek out more of Greg Gifune’s work on the strength of this one alone. Highly recommended.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Dead Light by Mike Pace

dead-light-3dFirst-time novelist Mike Pace has turned in a high stakes horror thriller about a demonic light that begins terrorizing the inhabitants of a small southern Maryland town.

Cumberton, Maryland, is one of those quiet little college towns where nothing of any importance ever really happens. Sure, the local college kids might cause a few problems every now and then, but these kids attend Starr College, the flagship college of the Reverend Starr, a world-class televangelist, who virtually runs the town. In DEAD LIGHT, problems begin when an ancient box containing, well, some kind of demonic MacGuffin that manifests as a light and can bring about the end of the world, is accidentally exhumed by some horny college students at the local cemetery (is it ever a good idea to have sex in a cemetery?). What follows is a rash of suicides among college students, and very public, very messy ones at that. The local sheriff, Eston Booker, is under a lot of pressure to white-wash the whole affair, since it seems to reflect poorly on the college and Reverend Starr himself.

Booker quickly realizes there’s a lot more going on than just a couple of despondent college students. He’s assisted in his investigation by a tough-as-nails female detective from Baltimore named Tucchi, who is ordered to take a vacation and try (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) to relax. The pair certainly end up biting off more than they can chew when they’re forced to battle demons and stop what seems to be the imminent end of the world at the hands of Satan.

There are some flashback chapters set on a slave ship as it travels to America and in an early American colony that provide some of necessary backstory for DEAD LIGHT. On the one hand, these provided some needed depth and an understanding of what was actually going on in the novel. On the other, I was skeptical of a satanic cult operating opening in the 1660s and the flashbacks themselves were a bit spread out in the narrative, so they sometimes became either jarring or too much of a tease.

Some of the elements of DEAD LIGHT just didn’t work for me, and seemed slightly humorous and out of place. For example, the demonic light also manifests itself with the scent of burnt cookies or figs, and is accompanied with a sensation like a mosquito bite on the back of the neck. Seems kind of silly to me. Also, I thought that the demons that eventually appear also lack a genuine sense of menace. I’d have liked to see more genuinely scary touches.

DEAD LIGHT was a quick-moving pageturner. It’s a thrill ride, and a fun one at that. It’s not a classic of horror fiction, and it’s certainly not going to change the way you view the genre, but it’s a fun book. Sometimes that’s exactly what you’re looking for, especially if you need to load up your Kindle before you head to the beach. If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller that doesn’t require a great deal of concentration, then DEAD LIGHT may be just what you’re looking for.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Strangers by Michaelbrent Collings

StrangersAfter reading STRANGERS and his previous effort DARKBOUND, I’m beginning to get the impression that Michaelbrent Collings doesn’t like secrets. I mean, he really doesn’t like secrets – characters who commit dark acts and manage to get away with them by keeping them secret end up meeting messy fates, while those who eventually ‘fess up usually turn out a bit better. Like most good horror thrillers – and STRANGERS is very much a thriller in the slasher movie vein – it thrusts seemingly ordinary people into a horrific situation where they struggle to survive while being tormented by a brutal psychopath. The horror is ramped up because the killer seems to know everything there is to know about the intimate lives of each member of the family, even (especially) those things they don’t know about each other. It’s a genre that Collings does very well.

Some mild plot spoilers follow.

STRANGERS has a great premise: an “ordinary” suburban family – mom, dad, a teenage boy, and a teenage girl – are subjected to terrible torments inside their own home. Out of the blue, a madman has rendered them unconscious for an unknown period of time, done God knows what to them and their home, then sealed them inside their own house so they can’t escape. To top it all off (literally), he’s placed a termite tent over the whole house so he can play his sick games with them as long as he likes and no one will be the wiser. After all, who wants to go poking around inside a house that’s probably filled with poisonous gases just because you haven’t seen the neighbors in a while?

But I should clarify that, despite all appearances to the contrary, this family is not exact “ordinary” (is any family?) and, as I alluded to above, each member of the family has a secret. Because of these secrets they keep from each other, they are, in many ways, strangers to each other (hence the title). I’m not going to spoiler you on what these individuals’ secrets are; after all, those gradual reveals are part of the fun. Suffice it to say that these aren’t the ordinary kinds of secrets most family members keep from each other – someone snuck the last piece of cake, or one of the kids broke something and blamed the dog – these are no kidding, big deal kinds of secrets. The kind that unfortunately leave you open to being preyed upon by a madman with a twisted sense of justice (or one who just likes screwing with people). The madman’s plan for this family plays out in a fairly creepy, gory, and, I think, satisfying fashion. As always, Collings pulls no punches; his fans demand no less, I’m sure. This is certainly not a book for the faint of heart.

STRANGERS offers some interesting reflections for us. The family of the novel is able to be isolated and tormented because they are disconnected from the lives of everyone around them, even those closest to them. Aside from the obvious precipitating secrets they kept from their family members, we have no indication that any of their friends or family members were ever particularly worried about them when they went missing for a week, or did anything to help. If an entire family drops off the face of the earth for a week and their house becomes enclosed in a termite tent overnight with no warning, shouldn’t someone, somewhere do something about it? Wonder about the whole thing, maybe get suspicious, start asking questions, something? Anything? I think that Collings is also asking us to ponder if, in a sense, aren’t we all really strangers to each other? Sure, we know lots of stuff about the people around us, especially those closest to us. But isn’t it possible that even our loved ones could have a whole side to them that we don’t know about, and may never learn about, because we’re all disconnected on some fundamental level. And, by the way, shouldn’t we do something about that? STRANGERS is certainly recommended, especially if you’re looking for a well-done slasher novel with a particularly interesting premise.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Staring into the Abyss by Richard Thomas

thomas3Staring into the Abyss
Richard Thomas
Kraken Press
ISBN: 978-9197972598
Publication Date; $14.99 trade paperback, $4.99 ebook

I was unfamiliar with Richard Thomas’ work before reading his short story collection STARING INTO THE ABYSS. The twenty stories included here cover such a breadth of genres and types of stories that this is a difficult collection to review or even summarize. As the title seems to imply, these stories all deal with the dark side of human nature, what happens when ordinary people make choices and contemplate actions that could transform them into monsters or transport them into the eponymous abyss. That’s a hopelessly vague description, so it’s probably best to delve into some of the collection’s stories for a closer look.

Some mild plot spoilers for a handful of the stories in this collection follow.

This is a genuinely interesting mix of stories: some clearly fantasy or science fictional, most containing distinct horror elements, and a few almost mainstream fiction, though even these all have an edge. The collection opens with a short piece about an old man who seems imprisoned in a tower making mechanical birds. It’s certainly an evocative piece, but it was almost more of a vignette than a complete story, so I was unclear on where the collection was headed. A couple stories later and we’re reading about a man whose life has spiraled downward to the point where he’s ready to end it all. Some of the stories are small pieces, almost slice of life tales; consider, for example, a quick piece about a couple who visits an underground sex club and wrestles with issues of temptation and jealousy. Another explores the efforts of a neglected boy who has been left to his own devices to fend off a boogeyman who visits him every night. Even amid the horror, there are plenty of just plain fun stories to lighten the mood, even though these too always have a dark tinge to them. “Stephen King Ate My Brain,” which is about just what it sounds like, is a good example of this type of story. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the longest story in the collection, “Victimized.” This is the story of a world in which crime victims – in this case, a young woman who has been sexually abused by a family member – are permitted to confront their victimizers in a no holds barred boxing match/slugfest to the death. In unskilled hands, this could be trite, but Thomas does a great job with such a challenging premise.

Some of these stories are genuinely haunting; I’ve found my mind wandering back to several of them, even days after reading them. At their worst, a few of the stories in the collection feel more like vignettes than complete tales, but most are very well-executed and have real bite. The worst thing I can say about the collection is that, thematically, it’s a bit scattershot. This is essentially a kind of portfolio of Thomas’ writing, and because he writes a lot of entirely different kinds of stories, there’s a lack of thematic focus. Having said that, I certainly recommend STARING INTO THE ABYSS for those interested in reading a selection of stories that cross traditional genre boundaries. It’s a smorgasbord of Thomas’ prose in all its forms, and that’s very much a good thing. Richard Thomas ably demonstrates his skills as a writer interested less in traditional genre boundaries and more in just telling a good story, and I look forward to reading more from him.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers