horror

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 an 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

Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories

Green TeaGreen Tea and Other Ghost Stories is a Dover Thrift Edition by Dover Publications.  It contains four stories by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1814 – 1873).  I have the 1993 edition of this collection; Dover released an e-book edition with a different cover.  On the back of my edition the price is $1.50, but I have a used book sticker, too. I probably paid next to nothing for this.  I mention this because a reader wanting to read just a few good stories will have definitely gotten their money’s worth with this edition.  I am given to understand LeFanu was a somewhat prolific writer, but of the four stories in this book, only one is one of LeFanu’s famous works. The other three stories are much lesser known.

  • “Green Tea” – from In a Glass Darkly (1886)
  • “Squire Toby’s Will”  – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” – from Dublin University Magazine (1838)

The stories are written in the style that I assume is typical of their times.  Sometimes this feels like it really suits the stories, sometimes it feels ridiculous. Most of the stories are told via a narrator or through someone who heard someone’s story.  In “Green Tea,” for example, the narrator is actually reiterating info from letters by a Dr. Martin Hesselius to a Professor Van Loo of Leyden. 

These are not fast reads and part of that is due to the typical Victorian lack of word economy making it stilted, too (this is the official description of it).  Part of the slowness, though, is because these stories all rely heavily on atmosphere.  In “Green Tea” the relating of the events by a doctor to a professor is an attempt to make the very frightening and oppressive angst seem even more elevated by describing it from a pseudo-scientific and clinical perspective.  Obviously, the reader is left to do a lot of the work here – do they believe, as the doctor clearly does, that this is all just just just explainable and diagnosable OR do they believe that this is a rare and supernatural occurence that cannot be explained away by the rationalist?  Its one of those situations where OF COURSE there is a reasonable explanation for all of this mania.  Right? 

“Green Tea” might be the closest to what readers consider to be horror.  It really derives its horror from the juxtaposition of the clinical with the unnatural.  When I read through it, I was somewhat unimpressed.  However, the element of the red-eyed ape is really disturbing and creepy. It is probably as terrifying as any violent, gory, scare-fest found in the horror genre because it is unexplained.  Being watched is often an element of a scary story.  The reader who can put themselves in the character’s place will get a lot of creepy thrills here. Imagine being in the room while the red-eyes glare…….

“Squire Toby’s Will” is probably my favorite of the bunch. I think that I liked it most because it is the grittiest and most noir of the bunch. Sibling rivalry, a wild and unruly rich father, and a loyal manservant named Cooper fill these pages with angst and struggle.  I liked the inclusion of the dog as the pivot point for the whole story. This story also has the most satisfactory ending, as well. Poor Gylingdon Hall with its creepy King Herod’s Chamber.  

“The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” is on par with the others, but it is definitely a bit long-winded, which is exacerbated by the Victorian manner of speech. So, one of the characters, Lady D– says:

“I still must believe that some latent fever has affected his mind, as that owing to the state of nervous depression into which he has been sinking, some trivial occurrence has been converted, in his disordered imagination, into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution.” – pg. 78

The words and meaning are easy enough, but heavens! that is a windy way to put that. Especially when all parties involved are sleep-deprived and in a state of great anxiety.  Do you think he is making a mountain out of a molehill? Or do we really want to go with: into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution?  Still, look how charming this way of writing was! 

Anyway, I feel bad for all the servants and butlers in these stories. They are all included, named and described, in order to provide a witness to the events that occur.  I feel bad for them because they seem to have all been loyal and honest folk. Jones in “Green Tea” probably should have his side of the story told. But then Cooper in “Squire Toby’s Will” seems the most robust of the lot and he made out the best, in the end, as well. 

All of these stories rely on what remains unexplained, what the servants saw and heard, and how the key causes and outcomes are left undefined.  I know a lot of readers might really dislike this sort of writing. I enjoyed it – it has its place. I would not want every story to be like these.  The fun and value is that a reader has to really get involved in the atmosphere and maybe that means not speed reading through descriptions of the forests and valleys.  The reader has to do work in their imagination, wondering at all the possible causes/outcomes and turning over the events in their mind, knowing that a definitive author’s decision is not available.  It is fun and interesting to ponder the rôle of the dog, the purpose and intent of the red-eyed ape, the mysterious Jacque character, et al. With some time on a quiet evening, a thoughtful reader could develop a hundred different re-tellings, subplots, and resolutions to these stories.

Another component to these stories is their setting.  Usually we have large manor homes and estate in Ireland.  Huge stone castles surrounded by forests and stone walls that enclose family crypts.  The stables are out back; occasionally we need the stableman to ready one of the horses.  The servants have always lived in these homes, waiting on these families. In the abandoned mansions, vines and rot have taken over and so it requires imagination to see them in their finest moments.  Sweeping staircases, portraits on the walls, candles being ported here and there by characters.  Do not forget the huge wooden and iron doors that are supposed to keep out whatever should not be inside.

Now, the last story in the book “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” is not one that I thought much of. It contained a lot of the elements of the other stories to make it just similar enough.  Here we have a gentleman traveling on horseback and he passes by the ruins of a castle, which he finds intriguing. After moving on to the next town and getting a meal at the inn, he returns to wander and peruse the ruins. 

Suddenly, a voice speaks to him – its an elderly hunchback with a lisp.  The hunchback proceeds to tell him the history of the ruins (because the creepy guy was raised there and his grandfather was also a manservant there long ago).  In fact, he begins his tale by pointing with his cane to a spot on the wall that he alleges is the skull and brain matter of the former owner, Sir Dominick Sarsfield.

I could not help thinking, as I read, about how this story plays out in contemporary times.  So, driving through small-town country roads, you pass by a crumpled building in ruins. Now, you might be intrigued for some reason. I know abandoned buildings and similar things have always had a niche following. Maybe when you stop for gas in the only gas station in town (that is charging a dollar more per gallon than reasonable), you ask the cashier about the place. I guess you drive back to get a better look – with your phone camera?  And maybe you find a place to park and are thinking of your Instagram/Facebook post and you go try to get some good shots. 

All the wood inside is pretty rotted and you are definitely sure you saw a few roaches. There are spiderwebs here and there. But no way are you just gonna sit a spell on the bottom of the staircase. You are probably more inclined to make a Google Assistant reminder to get a tetanus shot.  Anyway, as you are taking a pic of the vines mildewing around the wall, a voice next to you quotes some creepy verse. 

LeFanu thinks you are going to then hang around and hear the history tale of the place from the creepy hunchback with a lisp. 

Instead, its just more likely you are wondering:  wait, why is there a creepy dude here?  and instead of the “hallooo! don’t mean to scare you…. Hallooo?” calls that would alert someone to your presence, this little old guy quotes some verse? So, what really happens, is you pull your CWP firearm and drop your phone, trip over a piece of fallen debris, and wonder if you left the car unlocked.

3 stars

The Gulp

Alan BaxterThe Gulp by Alan Baxter is a collection of five novellas that take place in the same setting, which is Gulpepper, Australia (fictional). The author shares with us (in the Afterword) that it is more of a concept than a place. I was turned on to this work by some of my favorite fellow readers. Col’s Criminal Library and Books, Bones, and Buffy who each wrote 4+ star reviews of this work. Also, this reader (aka Well Read Beard) made a YouTube video-review of the book, and I enjoy his reviews, as well. Heck, since I am posting URLs, here is the author’s website:  Alan Baxter.  Anyway, I have made a bit of a small effort to sort of read some things outside my “usual” selections. So, instead of vintage science fiction, I have read a few small publishers’ prints, some crime, some horror, some non-mainstream and The Gulp is one that normally I would never have considered reading.

I do not read much horror at all, if any. I think I can count on one hand the amount of horror I have read – and most of it counts only as “classic/vintage” horror. I am referring to stuff like W. W. Jacobs and H. P. Lovecraft.  I read Needful Things by Stephen King when it first came out and I liked it. Liked it so much I watched the movie, which I also enjoyed. Honestly – I cannot think of much else that I have read that might be in this genre. The truth is, there is a lot of horror and terror in the world, and I usually like to use my reading for learning or entertainment. I can understand the argument that others might use reading as catharsis or that not everyone shares the same entertainment opinions. But for me, I get enough horror already without seeking it out.  Also, well, sometimes “horror” means “gross.”  There are a lot of examples of media in which these two are jumbled and I do not enjoy the gross too much.

So, before I ordered the book, I did read some reviews from trusted reviewers. I also went to the author’s website. Or Facebook. Or something. Something of his online. I skimmed what was there. To be completely honest, I do not know that he and I would get along. Or, maybe we would be chums. I do not know, but there is something about him that I find aggravating and/or abrasive. There are things we would agree on and then there are other things I think would end in a front yard fisticuffs.  So what? I do not have to like an author to read their stuff.

There is a reason I am mentioning both of these points:  I am the tough sell. I am the outlier and the reader that yeah, if I am praising the work, it does mean something stronger. And yes, like my book blogger friends listed above, I am going to give this work 4 stars.

The Gulp consists of five novellas that take place in a country/coastal town in Australia. I have never been to Australia, nor is it on my list of places I would like to go. And this is after one of the most significant people in my life having been from Sydney. That being said, The Gulp could really be anywhere, so shuffle the lingo a bit and yeah – its the creepy coastal town in Your Country. This is really cool because the universality of the setting is important to this particular type of writing, I think.  Drawing the readers in and immersing them in this town is really key to these stories.

All five stories are very original. I mean, the storylines themselves have an originality that was striking.  I feel after all that has been written in the horror/crime/science fiction genre, coming up with something original is quite challenging. It seems like it was not difficult at all for this author. As I consider this, I think that perhaps the trick is these stories are all somewhat “slice-of-life” stories. Meaning, the mundane is one of the most powerful elements in the stories. That is kind of odd to say considering some of the events that take place. But Baxter makes the reader believe that those events take place because of the setting in which they take place. Nicely done.

The first novella, Out On A Rim, was the one that most interested me when I read the other reviews. Something about this idea was interesting to me and I figured if it was good enough, it would be worth it even if the rest of the book was not great.  I think that it was the most suspenseful and scary of the group. It is strategically placed at the start of the collection – because one of the characters actually takes a walk around The Gulp – and introduces the reader to the setting. Again, smoothly done. However, the story gets quite gory and shocking really quickly and ends with a kind of flashbang.  Pay attention:  this is horror, crime, and it is very violent and gory.

I had to take a break for awhile after reading that story, honestly. Not because it was bad. But because I knew whatever came next was going to be intense. And wow, it sure was. The second story in the batch is, I think, the best written. However, it COULD come with valid content warnings all over it. There is a lot of gore and its not just splatter – it is emotional gore. This is the story I would be most concerned about when recommending this collection to other readers, to be honest. I am not a particularly sensitive reader, generally, but I could not help but worry about certain readers being just too open and gentle for this one.  As key reading material, the author has a solid blog entry on this sort of thing. The entry is entitled: “Content Warnings Are Not Censorship” and it was posted June 12, 2021.  It is very worth reading – get over there and read it. Here is a statement from that entry: “Horror is meant to be confronting. That doesn’t mean it should be traumatic, or that people avoiding trauma are somehow wrong, weak, or censors.”  Horror is meant to be confronting – this is an phrase/idea that I am going to ponder and turn around in my brain for awhile.

Anyway, Mother in Bloom was great. Unfortunately there are not as many readers that can confront this one as I wish. But the writing is so skillful, I really appreciated it. I like how genuine the characters seemed and their slice-of-life felt realistic.

The third story, The Band Plays On, was good, though it was somewhat predictable. I mean, it was not difficult to see where this was headed. That does not mean its a bad story. And again, it subtly gave us background info and developed the setting even more.  I felt sympathy for the main character and I am glad it ended the way it did – Baxter was not cruel to the reader in this one, wherein he could have been. Also, I did appreciate the music details throughout.

The fourth story, 48 To Go, starts circling the collection back to the start ever so gently. Finally, a story that is taking place not on the coast – but on the water. Again, a slice-of-life of one of The Gulp’s residents. Things suddenly go wrong for the main character. I did not feel a whole lot of compassion for him at this point, though. And then things just go sideways, downhill, and inside-out. I think this is the story that is the most bizarre of the collection. Its original, its gory, its full of what-in-the-ever-living-______!!!!!  But, because it is so chock full of bizarre and gore, it somewhat takes the edge off of the pandemonium. As events get to a fever pitch of outrageous, yeah, I started to feel a little compassion for the main character who somehow maintains some level of functionality while the world turned inside out.  This is a good story, but it is also the most wild.

Rock Fisher is the last story and I think the shortest. A lot of tie-ins to the rest of the collection occur. The Gulp is very claustrophobic. Anyway, here we have another basic main character with his slice-of-life struggles. Like every main character in these stories, it seems there is a real and honest characterization in which family, peace, contentment are strong goals. These are not necessarily bad people is what I suspect Baxter is telling us. However, fate, luck, and the monsters of The Gulp coerce and instigate and maul these people into doing outrageously horrific and unthinkable things. Troy is twenty-five years old, lives on his own, owns an aquarium, goes to work at a manufacturing plant, and enjoys fishing.  The story starts and he is upset about his girlfriend, whom he knows is not exactly a class act, ditching him for another fella.  Troy takes his troubles to the shore and brings his fishing rod. After a long day, he hauls in a very strange and somewhat disgusting catch; and it ain’t a bream or a sea bass!  Eventually, as Troy becomes more obsessed with his catch, he also becomes sicker – until he is transforming into………..?  The writing here is really good because Baxter shows (not so much bludgeons) the reader with how this magnetism-obsession is overtaking Troy.  Troy loses time, whole hours and then days go by where he is in a trance-like state near the thing he hauled in from the sea. Its creepy and the loss of will is truly the horror here – not just the “creature.”  It is a good story, especially rounding out this set.

And here is the thing:  I was planning from the end of the first story, to read this collection and send it onward. I have mentioned I am downsizing some of the bookshelves in this house. (I say that all the time, don’t be fooled.) Anyway, I had every intention straight up through halfway of the fifth story of finishing this book and plopping it on the stool that currently has about a dozen books on it to be shared elsewhere. After finishing Rock Fisher, I asked myself, should I get rid of this? Who can read it – it does “need” content warnings?  Maybe I should keep it, it isn’t like they have copies at all the bookstores in town. And then I laughed and laughed and laughed – because I felt just like Troy…. maybe I should just keep it. Gollum moments, right?  If y’all don’t hear from me for a good long while, maybe I’m in a fugue state staring at the book on a bookshelf.

Yeah, I’m definitely all in for a second helping if Baxter writes one!

4 stars

The Shores of Space

The Shores of Space - R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space – R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013) was a quick read for me. The thirteen stories zipped by in no time at all.  Originally published in 1957, the book collects some of Matheson’s stories from the early 1950s.  Matheson seems most well known for his horror stories, including:  I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and What Dreams May Come – all of which were adapted (some multiple times) into film.  It is not really fair to lock authors into one category or another. While there may be some “genre authors,” many writers pen works in a variety of genres/subgenres. Nevertheless, I confess I am not really into horror fiction and so I have never really delved into any of Matheson’s works.  This collection does contain some stories that might qualify as “horror” and few that would be “science fiction,” so it typifies the so-called speculative fiction genre.

One of the things that had me reading this collection, besides the push to get through the 1950s, is that Matheson’s works are so often plumbed by pop culture.  It seems like when a screenwriter/scriptwriter/producer does not know what to do – they all turn to Matheson’s stuff. I do not even know that most people who are pop culture nuts even realize how much material seems to get pulled from Matheson.  Well, in order to familiarize myself, I grabbed this early collection of his works. On the whole, I was not incredibly impressed – and it is difficult to say if my lack of enthusiasm was due to a latent unconscious familiarity due to the popularity of Matheson’s work?

  • Being3 stars –  1954
  • Pattern For Survival1 star – 1955
  • Steel2 stars – 1956
  • The Test2 stars – 1954
  • Clothes Make the Man3 stars – 1951
  • Blood Son2 stars – 1951
  • Trespass3 stars – 1953
  • When Day is Dun3 stars – 1954
  • The Curious Child4 stars – 1954
  • The Funeral 4 stars – 1955
  • The Last Day3 stars – 1953
  • Little Girl Lost3 stars – 1953
  • The Doll That Does Everything2 stars – 1954

Being was a good piece to put at the front of this collection. I think it is very well written and though I feel the basic story has been told or shown to us a million times, this was still rather gripping and harrying.  Starting off with Being really lets the reader know that this is not goofy, silly stuff. The stories in this collection are scary and sometimes even dark.

 

I did not love the second story, Pattern For Survival. It is one of “those” stories where you are supposed to close one eye and consider the whole thing after you read it. Sometimes that is okay. Sometimes, I could do without. This was a time of the latter.

 

As soon as I started reading Steel, I was reminded of the 2011 movie starring Hugh Jackman. I later checked this out and yes, the movie was allegedly based on this story.  I am somewhat grumpy because since 2011 I have wanted to see Real Steel, but have not had the opportunity.  Because: Robots.  What can I say, I am a child. Anyway, the story itself I only gave two stars, mainly because it tends to focus on the human-side of things.  The main characters are fighting losing battles against technology and refuse to give up the “glory days.”  I am not impressed by futile stubbornness.

 

Interesting to note,  Steel was also made into a Twilight Zone episode. The main character of interest was played by Lee Marvin (1924 – 1987), one of Hollywood’s more interesting actors; you may know him as Liberty Valance. Anyway, the Twilight Zone episode is in Season 5 as Episode 2.

 

The Test is a disturbing drama.  Several of the stories in this collection carry a heavy drama involving family. I think The Test is a good story but I did not enjoy reading it. And frankly, I have to say, the solution to problems for a number of characters in these stories is often suicide. It is not a comforting or gentle scenario.  However, Matheson writes these stories with a lot of skill. He really drops the reader right into the scene and every tick of the clock, every ambient sound in the story seems realistic and tangible.

 

I think Clothes Make the Man is my favorite story in the collection, though I was not able to give it the highest rating. The way it is written as it gradually reveals its plot twist just tickled me. I really enjoyed this one, though it is short and slightly obvious. I think the best part is that the “main character” is so snarky.

 

Blood Son is a definite horror. I do not think it was written well, I do not like the storyline, and it ends ridiculously. I feel instead of being truly horrific – like it begins – it turns comedic or stupid. Pass on this one.

 

Trespass is one of the longer stories in the collection. The storyline itself is obvious from the start, but the point of it is for the reader to have to watch the horrific struggles of the characters. I am not sure that I am so cruel as to enjoy watching the characters suffer and struggle like this. At the same time, the story is well-written because Matheson really gets into the character’s guts and presents their struggles with twisting, wrenching feeling. Again his skill in drawing the reader into the scenes, so that we are frustrated and restless and angry along with the characters, is demonstrated here.

 

When Day Is Dun is well-written, as is expected by this point. However, I found it disturbing and miserable. Sometimes, it is not easy to look at humanity qua humanity. And some authors do take a dismal view of the subject. Here is another theme found in several of these stories:  end of the world (hence the title).

 

The Curious Child is another of my favorites in this collection. This is the kind of horror that I can read and enjoy. I appreciate the psychological/existential horror a lot more than the blood and guts monsters stuff. So, in this short story we follow the main character as his day falls apart into a chaos that only he experiences. This is really “fun” and gripping. With Matheson’s ability to put the reader in the scene, this story works really well.

 

The Funeral is the comedic episode in this set. This story takes place in a funeral home.  A quite unusual client arrives to make funeral arrangements – for himself.  Very expertly written, I love Matheson’s descriptions and directions of the character Morton Silkline. Seriously, his work here in presenting this character is magical.  There is a lot to like about this story, particularly its light-heartedness that gives one a break from some of the dismality in some of the other stories in this collection.  Matheson’s ability to describe the character’s voices and their mannerisms is expert level. Aspiring authors need to read this to get schooled….

 

The Last Day is a tough story to get through.  It involves family drama and also the miserableness of end of days. If that is not enough, it begins in a sordid, foul scene.  This contains suicide and murder and general human decay.  Not that it is entirely out of place – if it was indeed the last day, this is likely how humans would react. As I said earlier, it can be difficult to look at humans qua humans.  Also, the undercurrent of mother/son relationship is strange and when juxtaposed with the chaos of the plot, it is disturbing.

 

Little Girl Lost again contains some comedy, heavy doses of characters struggling, and also family drama. It also highlights Matheson’s ability to make the reader panic and stress alongside the characters. This short piece takes place in a small apartment in which we find the husband, wife, young daughter, and pet dog.  My main complaint about this story is the very sudden, without explanation, inclusion of an outside character (Bill).  It is jarring when he is introduced because it interrupts the storyline – the reader is busy being confused as to why Bill was summoned. Still, it is a nice, tight read.

 

The Doll That Does Everything is really bland. It is totally skippable. Especially because it is very obvious and I would say it is the most heavy-handed of the collection.  A husband and wife, who are focused on their hobbies, dislike the demands their young son places on the household. So they get him a playmate. Things go poorly.

 

The best thing about this collection is the display Matheson puts on with his ability to put the reader in the scenes. And, perhaps, that is why a lot of his work ended up being made into film – the whole concept of reaching the audience, etc.  Matheson also likes looking at characters who are frustrated and struggling and making the reader watch these battles. I am not so sure I like this style of entertainment, however it works well within the horror/speculative fiction genres. One can safely read The Curious Child, Clothes Make the Man, and The Funeral and be rewarded for their time spent.  Reading the other stories is a good idea as long as the reader can take a little of the gritty, dismal stuff.

Average:  2.69

Most: 3