Month: October 2021

Beers and Fears: The Haunted Brewery

hauntedAmong all the other books I am currently reading, I managed to read through this one.  I was looking forward to this book because its a collaborative, small-press/self-published work that at 159 pages, I knew would be a easy reader.  I have previously read an item by Armand Rosamilia, but I have not read any of the other authors.  One of the things that I found appealing about the work was that it was just supposed to be a good fun read – these authors allegedly get together and drink beer and write out some horror stories and have fun with the genre.  The book has a second volume, but I do not own that one.  Beers and Fears: The Haunted Brewery was first released in 2019.

I like the concept for the structure of the book a lot. In fact, it was one of my main reasons for getting the book. One author writes a present-time framework story and then the other authors contribute backstories or sidestories to that frame.  The frame story in this one is called “The Last Taproom on the Edge of the World” and it was written by Tim Meyer. The first story is “No Fortunate Son” by Chuck Buda, the second “Have a Drink on Me” by Frank Edler, and the last story is “Alternative” by Armand Rosamilia.

I have run across the names of Buda and Meyer before, I kinda feel Meyer does not write what I would like to read, generally, and though I have not yet read any other Chuck Buda items, I would be open to doing so. Anyway, the frame story starts off really well. It does a good job of setting the scene and making the reader settled in for a rough and rowdy horror funhouse.  The characters are introduced and the purpose of the frame and the included backstories is sufficiently set up. Nothing at all wrong with this segment. But the first story… its got a lot going on in it.  The Vietnam backstory (which comes with intense flashbacks), the Mafia, the drugs, the porn, the brewery, etc. The story is completed, fairly polished, and there is nothing wrong with it, I guess. But I did not like it. I feel like the drugs and the Vietnam and the porn and the mafia took away from what could have been. I can imagine a story with the miserable veteran who is on hardcore drugs. I can imagine him making bad choices. I can imagine his choices affecting the brewery. However, this story, as it was written, seemed to go on too long, the porn chunk made the story lose a lot of the build-up of the psychedelic confusions, and at the end of the day, I hated every character. The horror was lost to the parts.

I was trying to imagine readers after having read this story.  Is the story relevant and readable? Yes. It is also gritty, dark, violent as hell, and gory. But after, I think, a day or two, I do not think the story sticks around. Its just easy in and easy out consumable junk food.  There is a surprising amount of sex in the book, though it just feels like another avenue of violence. So, you have violence between humans, violence through alcohol, violence via sex, violence from demons…. So, the first story tends to lean more towards just violence than horror or macabre or anything like that.

Frank Edler’s story “Have a Drink on Me” is much opposite of Buda’s story.  This story was more like what I expected from the book.  Over-the-top outrageous insanely creative, but still horrific and amusing as hell.  This was the fun and wild and utterly ridiculous story that captured what this book could be.  Unlike Buda’s story, which was really just violence upon violence, this one was the pinnacle of ridiculous.  I do not know if calling it humorous is valid, because this is not quite humor. The level of ridiculous that plays into this one encapsulates that B-movie, but oh-so-fun wildness that horror movies often contain.  So, Buda’s story is just gory and violent, I did not like it and I will shortly forget it.  Edler’s story is the ridiculous horror that is so outrageous I know I will not forget. I mean, its still a bit gory and savage, if you know what I mean.  However, I had fun reading it and I imagine Edler had fun writing it.  This is the story that author dudes with beers in October are supposed to be writing! I am still chortling over the “bad guy” in the story.  I want to have drank about three beers and nod with a lopsided grin at the author and say things like, “makes sense, bro! totally!”

Now the frame story segments that came before and after Edler’s work started to go downhill. For one thing, leaving a setting and going to another is hazardous because the author just built up a scene and now all that work is swept away. So, there needs to be a real purpose. Frankly, there was not a purpose.  These segments should have been exciting little interludes and really scary moments. Instead, they just read as pointless.

The last story is Rosamilia’s. It is probably the most realistic, if one can say that, of the stories in the book. By that I mean that the characters and setting seem natural and real as opposed to seeming cardboard or created cartoons. The main characters Trevor and Jackson are engaging and the storyline moves around them without hiccup.  I think the horror is really most developed in this story. Of all the stories, this is the only one that could claim “spine-tingling” or “creepy.”  There is still a bit too much of the sex/violence in this one, which is probably just there because this story somewhat circles back to the first story and its contents.  I did not really find the interconnectedness very crucial to the stories, though. They all take place at the particular location – at some point. Sadly, on the last page of the story is a nasty typo – the wrong character is named, “Trevor nodded” when it should be “Jackson nodded.”  Yeah, it was clunker of an error. Overall, it was a good story, a little more work and this would have been very creepy.

The structure of the book is difficult to separate stories out to rate. I think the frame story needs a lot more purpose and function. I am only going to give it 1 star.  “No Fortunate Son” is also a 1 for me. I really did not like it. No beers, no fears for that; just revulsion. The Edler story is 4 stars without a second to think. I will remember that one for a long, long time! Armand’s “Alternative” is a solid three. Overall, I think the concept is an awesome one. I think the execution was not so great. Some overwriting (Buda), some lack of direction (Meyer), but the other stories are good enough for a fun October splatter horror mess.

And after all of this, the concept is so good that I think I will read volume 2.

2.25 stars

Nightmare

NightmareNightmare by Chad Nicholas was first released in 2020, it is Nicholas’ first novel. I saw it on a bunch of recent internet postings by a number of fellow readers that I follow.  Everyone seemed to have very positive reactions, so I added it to my plan of October.  Honestly, since I am not a very frequent reader of horror, I am not really sure what to expect in a lot of these books this month.  Obviously, I expect gore and darkness, but I don’t know about all of the styles and nuances this genre utilizes. That being said, I do think it is really key for this genre that readers not “spoil” the books for other readers.  That’s sometimes true with other fiction, of course, but I feel like its even more important not to do that with this genre. So, that is an added challenge in reviewing such a book – I am going to try to weave a careful path, then.

Overall, I can see why a lot of readers thought this book was well-written and they were captivated.  I read the novel over two days and I can agree that it is a very fast read and one that the writing style and storyline are built to be read in one larger space as opposed to being broken up over a longer duration.  I did not find any typos or any spots where editing was needed. Also, as a quick remark, I think that for a debut novel, the author chose to write a difficult storyline, but managed it fairly well. 

So, this particular horror novel is one that I would put in the pyschological horror subgenre.  After having read not very much horror at all, I am going to share that I do not think this is my preferred segment of horror.  I paused after typing that in order to give myself a moment:  could I develop a reasonable taxonomy of horror types?  Let me see, there is cosmic horror (which I have heard about, but I still wonder if there is a solid definition), there is devils/possession/religious horror, and there is monster horror (which would include, perhaps, kaiju science fiction themes, as well), psychological as seen in Nightmare, Gothic, and maybe, finally, stuff that is just slasher gore.  So, possibly six different subgenres. I kicked around the idea of “survivor” horror and “haunted space” horror, but ended up arguing with myself. I am unsure about those. Most survivor horror would fall under slasher or monster, I think. And most haunted space, though a frequent setting/locus, would still come to one of the other subgenres, usually religious or maybe monster.

SPOILER ALERT

From here onward, though I will still attempt to not add heavy spoilers, I still intend to talk about this novel, so I will have to include some things that may spoil the read. Such is the way of the review…..

Regarding the overall plot, there were plenty of hints and clues that the author is banking on readers not picking up on. And the author’s strategy is to throw so much “shock” and “awe” that the reader does not notice and the hints and clues slip by because of the fast-paced page turning and the sudden gory shock, perhaps.  Apparently, and this is me going by a number of reviews (YouTube/Goodreads/blogs), this strategy worked very well. Sadly, it did not work on me. I say “sadly” because yeah, maybe I wish it had worked on me? I have been thinking about the reasons why it did not work on me and I do not know how to write about them without sounding awful and arrogant and hideous.  I guess, I’m just going to say:  I’m a philosopher – by education and trade, you think you gonna sneak dat stuff by me? Naw, bro, not gonna happen.

I suspected what was going on in this book, but on page 93, that’s when it got a bright pink Post-It note smacked on it. Wham! pink post it 2 Because, you see, what I had read was so incongruous that it could not sneak by me. Most of the clue was based on mundane details.  SPOILERS ARE COMING NOW —->  The main character calls his doctor and the doctor answers: “Hello?”  First of all, it is highly unlikely that you direct call a doctor unless you are part of his golf foursome.  Secondly, for the sake of fiction license, let us say you can reach the doctor directly, he certainly is not going to answer “hello.” Instead, he would say “Dr. Reynolds.”  A small thing? Maybe, but the clues continue.   The main character opens a desk drawer at work and pulls out a lighter.  At no point throughout the story was smoking hinted at or mentioned. Why is there a lighter in his drawer? Does he smoke – he does not seem to be a character that smokes? Next, the character dumps papers in a wastebasket and lights them on fire. At work – on one of the upper floors of the building.  Yeah, this is not going to happen in the real in 2020 (smoke alarms, fire hazard, fireable action, etc.).  So, what is going on here? Is the author truly stupid? No, instead these are hints that we are not in reality. 

There are other clues, but I think the one of the biggest is on page 182 in chapter eleven wherein:

Outside, Dr. Reynolds spoke with them. “You can go home for the night if you wish.  I will make sure that she is well looked after.”

This obviously is not a realistic reaction to how we started this chapter, which was fraught with action and sorrow and drama:

Scott rushed into the hospital, carrying May in his arms.  He ran straight past the desk to Dr. Reynolds, who was in the hallway, speaking to another patient.

“What happened?” Dr. Reynolds asked as they ran down the hallway. 

“She was stabbed,” Scott said, not telling him how.

This one is much more obvious than a lot of the previous clues.  I mean, a doctor cannot recognize stab wounds? And at the end of the chapter, the doctor telling them they can “go home” as if bringing anyone, especially a child, into a hospital covered in stab wounds will not result in any call to the police. 

Finally, the last clue that was much like a bright flashing marquee to readers, was late in the book on page 247.  After having a massive ridiculous-level blowout at his house, Scott drives to the county library. 

The first aisle he walked down was history, the next children’s books, and the one after that thriller.  It struck him as a weird order to have the sections in, but what did he know about libraries? He had never been in one before.

What now? Now, before this, we have learned that Scott is college educated and he also has a library card account.  Again, obviously we are not in reality. 

The title of the whole book is called Nightmare and I feel like that should be a really massive clue to all readers as to what is going on here.  Granted, the plot does involve nightmares, but the reader should have been able to realize what was going on – to some extent, I think. Well, the author chose a tough plot and took a big gamble on strategy.  I want to say it did not work, but after looking at the internet for awhile, I guess I would be wrong.  The author’s strategy worked plenty on a whole slew of readers. They enjoyed the novel and they were kept off-balance and on the edge-of-their-seat.  Unfortunately, the strategy did not work for me. I almost want to apologize to the author for this. At the same time, I am sure the author knew he was not going to hook all the readers; as long as he got a large percentage, I am sure he is pleased.

Unfortunately, the author was never going to wow me because, besides my suspicious Cheka-trained reading, the last sort of novel that I enjoy is the psychological one. It is a bit difficult to define, though.  The blatant heavy-handed psych stuff always bores me and that is what happened here. In this novel, I got bored quickly. I just wanted it over already. Yes, that makes me sad because that is obviously not something an author every wants to hear. But, consider… after I figure out it is not reality, what is left to keep me reading? Such is the gamble with this strategy.  Take D. G. Compton’s Synthajoy as an example – I gave the novel four stars because it was very strong and intellectual, but I knew reading it that I was not able to really connect with it or comprehend a lot of it. In a similar, but not exact, vein look at my rating of VALIS. I gave it two stars, because of the blatant psychological/psychotropic business of it. I just do not do well with this sort of fiction. 

Along with this point, however, if an author is writing a psychological novel – that rather means it is character-based.  We need strong character development or the reader needs to be able to connect with the characters.  Due to the need to keep this novel constantly shocking and fast-paced, there was not much effort at all to build or connect with the characters.  Another risk for the author, one that I do think he could have modified or reworked. As a reader, I am usually not for character-driven plots, but I do like to be able to identify the character. For some readers, characters are all that matters and they practically bond with this fictional identities. In either case, there is not a lot I can tell you about the main character and that keeps me, as a reader, at a distance. I do not care about the character, which usually means I do not care what happens to him. Also, that distance allows me the perspective to see the plotholes or the dull parts. 

Overall, not a book for my tastes and aptitude. However, I recognize a lot of readers really enjoyed this. I think it was a heavy lift for a young author.  Would I read this author again? Yes, but not everything he writes.

2 stars

The Surly Sullen Bell

Russell KirkThis October I decided I would read a bunch of horror novels. I cannot pledge anything, since I do not normally (ever?) read horror and I do not know how far I will get into this enterprise. I did think this was fitting for a year in which I have attempted to “read outside of the box of usual.”  The first completed item this month is Russell Kirk’s (1918 – 1994) collection The Surly Sullen Bell published as a collection in 1962.  Most of the stories in the collection were previously published in magazines/journals.  Kirk is widely known as a Conservative critic and writer, although his supernatural tales used to be more well known than they are today.  For the most part, readers are put off by his politics, especially nowadays, and are unlikely to seek out his fiction.  More or less, this is understandable – one of the complaints I have regarding the collection is that it is unbalanced.  Kirk spent a little too much effort commenting on how big government and immoral government has harmed or maligned the poor, the farmer, et al. unbalancing his stories; ignoring the needs of fiction to develop characters and plot as-well-as theme.

  • Uncle Isaiah • (1951) • London Mystery #11, August/September 1951 – 3 stars
  • Off the Sand Road • (1952) • World Review, March 1952 – 2 stars
  • Ex Tenebris • (1957) • Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 1957 – 2 stars
  • The Surly Sullen Bell • (1950) • London Mystery #7, 1950 – 3 stars
  • The Cellar of Little Egypt – 2 stars
  • Skyberia • (1952) • Queen’s Quarterly Summer 1952 – 1 star
  • Sorworth Place • (1952) • London Mystery #14, February/March 1952 as ‘Old Place of Sorworth’ – 3 stars
  • Behind the Stumps • (1950) • London Mystery #4, 1950 – 2 stars
  • What Shadows We Pursue • (1953) – 4 stars
  • Lost Lake • (1957) • Southwest Review, Autumn 1957 (n/a)

The book itself contains a short foreword essay and a final essay on the topic of “ghostly tales.” There is also the piece, Lost Lake, which is hardly fiction, so I did not rate it. Overall, the collection is uneven. There are good stories and bad ones, there are good elements to the stories and then pieces which do not work. Although the collection has its ups and downs, strangely, I would say the most representative of the bunch is the story Off the Sand Road

Technically, this second story, Off the Sand Road, does not have any supernatural element to it. Or, it is so subtle and covert that it hid from my eye.  Indeed, it is more noir in tone than supernatural. However, it is very much a tone that Kirk returns to in his other stories.  The setting, as in several other stories, is described thus:

… a barren, fringed by silent woods.  Ragged stumps, patches of brown rot contrasting with their naked gray sides, stretched for a mile across rolling country, and then scrub oak and second-growth pine closed the view. – pg. 37

Kirk actually spends a large amount of time in the stories describing the land that appears like this. Always words like scrub, stumps, desolate farm, rutted trails are used to describe the land.  The reader gets the impression that the world is a soggy, gray place filled with rotted tree stumps/roots, and the land is worthless for producing anything. Everything surely smells of mold and decay. Anyway, Off the Sand Road has a little story to it; the Bass boys (nine and fourteen) named Frank and Harry happen to be leading Doctor Cross through the area.  Boys of this age tend to be the best guides for such adventures. They are unfettered by trespassing laws and have a curious eye for ruins and nature. They come upon the Clatry property and in turns tell Cross the common history of the place.  They go inside and explore the upstairs where Cross supplements the boys’ stories with tattered letters he discovers and reads. For all this build up, the history and the sordid stories, the tattered letters and the wasteland property, nothing happens. Cross feels uncomfortable, they leave. Now, I know there is a sense that the reader needs to supply some effort and the atmosphere is the significant horror (as with LeFanu’s stories).  But in this case, it does not really work. This ends up being something of slice-of-life sadness as opposed to anything Gothic.

My favorite story in the collection is What Shadows We Pursue.  I think it is the weirdest of the bunch. It might be a mere matter of taste as to which story a reader would like the most here. I like this one because it is very unique and because it left some of the horror undefined.  The main idea for the story is that Mrs Corr and her daughter have sold the library belonging to Dr Corr to a bookseller named Stoneburner. They have done this because Dr Corr had amassed a huge library, of some moderate value, and he was no longer available to own these books and his wife and daughter required some monies.  From the start the house is described as dilapidated and, in places, seemingly very grungy and nasty. Yet, these two women, who are both quite odd in personality, still live there, apparently keeping to the habits instilled in them by Dr Corr. Stoneburner seems to be good with his purchase, but maybe does not feel he is getting any great bargain.  As he spends his time hauling Corr’s library to his truck, he often pauses to flip through books.  Kirk, of course, selects titles that he feels poignant and significant for Stoneburner to read. Anyway, small strange things take place as Stoneburner is going up and down the stairs of the house.  The events are odd and one feels sympathetic toward Stoneburner. I liked the fact that this one is about books and a personal library and that the horror is based on the odd and uncomfortable.

The title story, The Surly Sullen Bell, is less of a supernatural horror than a Gothic noir story. I gave it three stars because, early on, its quite easy to see what is going on. I suppose the story hints at the Gothic romantic feel, but none of the characters are very likeable at all. Unlike the other stories, this one takes place in St. Louis and Kirk writes a strange St. Louis, indeed. One follows along, but it seems almost too windy in the conversational aspects. The ending is good, but sad.  Maybe I feel that Kirk was using this story to complain about some spiritualism relevant to the 1940s/1950s instead of writing a story qua story.

Three of the stories had, for me, a key moment that I might call a heart-rate-accelerator. You know, actual sparks of horror. A moment of “oh no!”  So, the biggest, for me, was in the story Behind the Stumps when the main character, Cribben, is in this wasteland farmhouse and……..!!!!!!  Another such moment was in The Cellar of Little Egypt – also at the end when they were in the cellar and……!!!!  Now, I did not love this last story because I felt it was way too rambling and the wordsmithing was a bit confusing (Cp. Faulkner) and maybe the whole thing was lacking just that extra something to take this story from a 2 to a 4 star read. Lastly, in the most truly Gothic of the collection, Sorworth Place, there are a couple of moments where the climactic events take place and its Gothic and scary and engaging.  The ending of this one is rather stupid, I think, because it introduced another element/setting that did not suit. Now, I think that Kirk wrote another story related to this one, but not in this collection. At some point, I might track that one down. 

Overall, this was a worthwhile read. I mean, nothing here is standout and amazing.  However, I feel like it was good to get to know these stories. I did not hate them even though some of them (e.g. Skyberia) were quite pointless. I know Kirk wrote about how ghost stories make people uncomfortable. I think, at the end of this collection, it did succeed in making me uncomfortable, but not with his fiction – the places and characters – but rather with the author himself. 

Yes, the stories (and collection) seem unbalanced and uneven.  But for all of that, the unique and the interesting sections are still worthy enough to be given a read. If readers stuck to the four stories I rated 3 stars or better, they should be relatively pleased with the read. Recommended for well-rounded/well-read readers.

2.44 stars (accurately)
2 stars