Archive for Not a Comic Book

The Pumpkin King with His Skeleton Grin

My children, tomorrow is the best day of the year, and I still have time to review another horror tale. Let’s look at one of the best Halloween stories out there, Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge.

Well, here we are — it’s Halloween night, 1963, in the little podunk Midwestern town you call home, and it’s time for the biggest event of the year. But it’s not trick-or-treating. It’s not the Halloween parade. It’s the time when the October Boy, Sawtooth Jack himself, that pumpkin-headed, candy-stuffed, butcher knife-wielding scarecrow, hauls himself out of the cornfield and makes his way toward town. And if he makes it to the church before midnight, there’s going to be big trouble.

Luckily, every teenaged boy in town is in the way, armed with clubs and machetes and kitchen knives and pump handles and more. Why just the kids? Because the only way anyone gets to leave this little podunk Midwestern town you call home is to kill the October Boy before midnight. Seriously. The lucky kid gets permission to go live his life outside of this little hellhole, and the rest of you are stuck here forever. So get after it, kid. You don’t wanna be on the wrong end of the knife when you’re staring down Sawtooth Jack’s crooked grin.

Much of our story focuses on 16-year-old Pete McCormick, on his first year going after the October Boy. He’s a smart kid, smarter than most — he knows he can’t rely on brute strength and bravado to take down a nightmare with a pumpkin’s face — but like almost every other kid in town, he’s stuffed full of resentment and anger. He’s been stuck in this town his whole life, watching his drunkard father get beat down and knowing that’s the best he has to look forward to — unless he can make his escape.

But the October Boy isn’t the only obstacle Pete has to contend with. There’s every other teenaged boy in town, many of them stronger and more violent than he is. There’s Jerry Ricks, the brutal, thuggish cop who’s run the town as long as anyone can remember. And there’s Kelly Haines, the only girl participating in the competition, the person who knows all the secret scandals Pete hasn’t learned about yet.

Will Pete get his free trip out of town? Or will the October Boy drag the town to Hell with him?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a thoroughly fun book, though I hesitate to classify it as straight horror. Yeah, it’s got a pumpkin-headed scarecrow, multiple murders, a conspiracy stretching back generations, and evil both supernatural and mundane, but it feels more like a hardboiled crime novel than anything else.

A lot of Norman Patridge’s writing is in detective fiction, and his writing style in this book is picture-perfect crime noir. Almost everyone in the book is at least a little bit sleazy — the first thing the hero does on Halloween night is break into a cop’s house to steal his gun, after all. And the book is stuffed to the gills with performative machismo. I don’t even consider that a bad thing! Desperate, violent men doing desperate, violent things to other desperate, violent men is one of the best ways to write hardboiled crime fiction. And yes, Kelly Haines, essentially the only female character in the book, does manage to clock her share of dudes upside the head with a brakeman’s club, but as much fun as she is, as much as she moves the story along, she won’t be mistaken for the main character.

And the main character, by the way? It’s actually a pumpkin. Because we do spend about half the story’s length inside the October Boy’s blazing brain as he’s constructed in a cornfield, his wooden chest cavity stuffed full of candy, as he plots his way through the night, as he remembers his past, as he decides what kind of creature he’s going to be. It’s his desire for revenge that drives the story forward, it’s his decisions and planning that change the town’s fate, and it’s his ability to show mercy that brings the tale to its proper conclusion.

“Dark Harvest” was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and an International Horror Guild Award in 2007, and it won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction in 2006. Publishers Weekly picked it as one of their 100 Best Books of 2006. So it’s not just my opinion, y’all — it’s a great Halloween story, and you should go look for it, read it, and remember what it’s like to run the streets of your hometown with a baseball bat, looking for your showdown with the October Boy.

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The Creeping Terror

We’ve talked fairly recently about the need for horror and cosmic horror to move past H.P. Lovecraft and his racism, and it turns out there’s a roleplaying game that decided to figure out how to work that out. Can you have meaningful cosmic horror that doesn’t rely on Lovecraft and his creations to work? Let’s take a look at Lovecraftesque, designed by Joshua Fox and Becky Annison.

First of all, this isn’t your standard RPG, with players throwing dice to defeat monsters and steal all the gold in the dungeon. There are no dice and no GM. It’s a storytelling game, less reliant on the random roll of the dice and more focused on collaboratively building a cohesive, satisfying story.

And this game has some significant differences from its most obvious inspiration, the classic horror RPG “Call of Cthulhu.” Players are encouraged not to use familiar foes from the Cthulhu Mythos — no deep ones, no mi-go, no King in Yellow, no Nyarlathotep, not even Cthulhu itself. The name of the game, after all, is “Lovecraftesque,” not “Slavishly Recreating Lovecraft’s Works.” This allows the players to be surprised by the terrors they conjure up themselves, rather than confronting the same monsters every player has grown accustomed to over the years.

The other difference from “Call of Cthulhu” is more controversial among certain sets of performatively assholish players. “Lovecraftesque” advises players on ways to avoid the issues that made Lovecraft’s fiction so problematic. It’s a game that says no to racism, sexism, and homophobia, and even counsels players on how to avoid harmful and untrue stereotypes about mental illness. The game even offers a tool called the X-Card, which allows a player to veto a just-introduced story element they find unpleasantly upsetting or overwhelming.

So how’s the game work?

Every player cycles between three different roles: the Witness (who plays the main character), the Narrator (who describes the action and reveals clues), and the Watchers (any other players — they support the Narrator by helping to add details to descriptions and by playing some NPCs). These roles rotate from one scene to the next.

These scenes themselves have a specific structure of their own, with the game divided into three parts. Part One is five scenes long, and Part Two can be up to three scenes long. Each scene ends with the revelation of a new clue into the strange horror menacing the Witness. Part Three starts with a “Journey into Darkness” in which the Witness is taken, willingly or not, to the location of the final confrontation. After that, the “Final Horror” scene unveils the, um, final horror, and then an Epilogue reveals what happens afterwards. The Witness does not have to die, and may even survive entirely unharmed.

There are a number of special cards that allow the game’s rules to be broken in various ways, sometimes by letting a player take over as the Narrator or Witness, sometimes by introducing new story elements or clues, sometimes by forcing an ongoing effect that must be used through the rest of the story.

Another fun rule requires the players to “Leap to Conclusions” after every scene. Each player has to look at the available clues and plot points and put together their best guess as to what the Final Horror may actually be. These guesses will mostly be completely inaccurate, but they can give players some ideas about where they’d like to steer the story, and they’re fun to review once the game is over.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I know this all sounds fairly daunting, but plenty of advice is offered on how to set up and conclude scenes, how to create and develop the Witness, and how to bring the game to a satisfying conclusion. A full teaching guide is also included, which allows the rules to be quickly communicated to an entire gaming group.

Plus there are also over a dozen scenarios offered for players to use, complete with details about the Witness, some useful NPCs, settings, special cards to use, and sample clues for players who need some more ideas. The scenarios are from a wide variety of times and places, from the familiar 1930s New England to modern-day America, World War II London, the Deep South in the 1960s, a Russian ship trapped in polar ice in 1902, a spaceship in the distant future, pre-colonization West Africa, fraternity row at a university in the Midwest, a deep sea exploration base, and many more.

(Personal favorite scenarios: a house-sitter discovering bizarre hints of the eldritch in the memorabilia inside a ritzy Hollywood mansion; a cyberpunk scientist battling a computer virus that’s somehow adapted to infect humans; and a blind occultist researching a recently-discovered Braille edition of the Necronomicon.)

A couple essays are also devoted to advice for players on how to avoid problematic areas common to Lovecraft’s fiction. The advice on racism is likely the most vital — because Lovecraft was really racist, y’all — while also acknowledging the difficulty of avoiding racist tropes in many settings. If the Witness is a black man living in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, racism is everywhere. But if you come to a game to escape from the racism of the real world, in-game racism can make the game deeply un-fun. Still, the advice is sound, straightforward, and useful — find out what the other players’ comfort levels are with depictions of racism, avoid the common racist plotlines (like humans mating with subhumans — Innsmouth stories are popular, but they were based around Lovecraft’s fear of race-mixing), don’t make a whole race of people into diabolical cultists, and when it comes to creating villains, punch up, not down.

As for mental illness, one’s initial thought may be, “Is there anything left of Lovecraft and cosmic horror if you take out getting driven mad by the shocking revelations?” But as the authors point out, lots of people have mental illnesses, of different types and varying degrees, and very few of them are down with the idea that having an illness makes them prone to carving up sacrifices, joining cults, and summoning monster-gods from beyond strange aeons. Besides a lot of Lovecraft’s “madmen” were either entirely lucid and not actually insane, were only affected for a short period of time, or were likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

So the authors’ advice is to be aware of what your players will be uncomfortable with, and to be mindful of how you’re depicting mental illness. They also suggest describing symptoms of a breakdown — it’s possible that everyone who encounters the quad-dimensional hellbeasts from the Bile Realms suffers mental trauma, but they can all have unique symptoms, tailored to their existing personality. A soldier could become hyper-vigilant or obsessed with cleaning her weapons; a professor could try to track down all information about the horrors or retreat from learning completely; or any of a very wide array of symptoms could develop. Just because Lovecraft or “Call of Cthulhu” say madness happens one way doesn’t mean players can’t look for another way to roleplay horror.

If there’s any part of the game that’s less than useful, it’s probably the section on Lovecraftian poetry. Why is there a chapter on Lovecraftian poetry in a roleplaying game? I do not know. The poems don’t seem bad, and the whole chapter is fairly short — but it’s also very skippable.

But on the whole, if you’re looking for a new kind of horror roleplaying and storytelling experience, one that emphasizes creeping terror and allows players to avoid the moral weaknesses of Lovecraft’s tales, this is a game you may want to try out.

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Werewolves on Wheels

It’s Halloween Week! It’s been a super-weird and largely awful year, but we get this whole week for celebrating the best holiday of the year — culminating in Halloween itself, on a Saturday, with a full moon! And speaking of full moons, let’s review Mongrels, a novel written by Stephen Graham Jones.

So kids, what do we know about lycanthropy? Well, it’s the power to shift your form, right? The power to become a powerful, unstoppable werewolf, master of the night, destroyer of man and animal alike, savage scourge of the forest, a beast unlike all other beasts!

Actually, according to this book, it kinda sucks. There’s so much stuff that can kill you. You can’t wear tights or panty hose, ’cause if you wolf out while wearing them, they’re sheer enough that they change with you, and when you return to human form, every hair pulled back into your skin drags artificial fibers into your body, into your bloodstream, and you spend all day dying.

You have to be careful driving, ’cause if you wolf out in the car, you can’t drive anymore, and you’re gonna die. You sure can’t go on a boat. You wolf out in the middle of the ocean, you’re gonna go overboard and drown. You can’t even eat delicious trash out of the dumpster, ’cause if the wolf eats a tin can, the human’s gonna suffer for it. And you’re not going to live very long, even if you survive all the hazards. Being a werewolf takes a toll on your body. But no matter how long you live, it’s mostly going to suck.

“Mongrels” follows a kid, an unnamed narrator, as he travels across the South with his uncle Darren and aunt Libby. They’re all werewolves, but the kid hasn’t had his first change yet. Sometimes he wants it desperately, sometimes he’s not so sure. A lot of the time, he’s not sure that time will ever come at all. Darren is a laughing good-old-boy daredevil, and Libby is more careful, but often more savage.

They’re generally flat-broke and on the run from someone — usually because Darren or Libby turned into a monster and ate someone they shouldn’t have, usually a cop. It’s not an easy life, living out of junked-out trailers, traveling in cars that don’t run well, struggling to earn enough money to buy decent food. The kid never finishes out a whole year of school, generally only a few months at a time.

The whole family is fairly invisible, working bad jobs, burning trash out back of the trailer, buying food and wine coolers at convenience stores and truck stops. (I have a weakness for this book because the family spends time in two different towns I’ve lived in, and it’s nice to imagine you could’ve been that close to werewolves while you were buying corn dogs and chimichangas at Allsup’s in college.)

So the kid learns why you don’t go trying to turn normal humans into werewolves, he follows his uncle and his aunt on bloody sprees all over the countryside, he meets other werewolves — very rarely friendly — and once in a while, he gets to make a friend. The whole family goes through uncomfortable scrapes with the law, with angry rednecks, with kidnappers who want werewolves for their pee, with an out-of-control bear. But of all the things that can destroy a werewolf pack, the biggest threat is time. Time moves on, and people, even werewolves, change.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a real hair-raiser of a novel. Sometimes, it’s intensely scary, action-soaked, and bloody. Sometimes, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. And a lot of the time, it’s really sad. Because the life of a werewolf is hard and painful and lonely. You don’t get money, you don’t get possessions, you don’t get friends, you don’t get to settle down, and the future is always a question mark.

Characterization is a real high point for this book. You get to know every nook and cranny of these people’s heads — Libby’s stubborn nature, and her barely secret desire to go back to her lowdown scumbag mate Red; Darren’s good nature and quick wits, so often disarmed by the beast within; the kid’s questioning mind, his yearning to belong, his boundless love and trust in his aunt and uncle, his hopes and fears for his future.

We get few physical descriptions of the trio — Jones says he always considered them, like him, Native American. But we know what they look like where it counts. They look like humans. And they look like wolves.

If you love werewolves, if you love coming-of-age stories, if you ever lived the low-luck, low-rent, poor trash lifestyle, this book has something to say to you.

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The Skeleton Crew

I love a fun roleplaying game, and this is the season to talk about some scary — or at least horror-themed — RPGs. Today, we’re talking about The Skeletons, designed by Jason Morningstar

This is a freeform roleplaying game published by Bully Pulpit Games, which is owned by Morningstar, back in 2016. Morningstar, probably best known for the brilliant “Fiasco,” sometimes described as the Coen Brothers RPG, generally specializes in experimental, educational, and even outright oddball games that don’t need a gamemaster. His specialty is games where you play people on their worst, most trying days. His games feature doomed Civil War soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, professors possessed by otherworldly roaches, child soldiers in World War II Poland, queer Soviet airwomen during WWII, star-crossed lovers, police operatives demoralizing and destroying activist groups… and rabbits. Morningstar’s games can be madcap and hilarious, but they often examine the nature of death, defeat, and tragedy.

So “The Skeletons” is a game for 1-6 players requiring a few hours of playing time and a private space where you could dim the lights or play music. It’s about 60 pages long. It’s not super-complicated.

What’s it about? Well, if you’ve ever playing a standard fantasy RPG, you’ve probably run into a situation where your party of adventurers is exploring a dungeon and comes across an ancient tomb filled with treasures, but to get the goodies, you have to battle the undead horrors guarding the crypt.

In this game, you don’t play the bold adventurers, swinging your sword and casting your spells. You play the skeletons.

In fact, you play cursed skeletons, stripped of memories and identities by a powerful wizard. You are dead, fully inanimate and insentient, until someone enters the tomb. When that happens, you rise, lift your weapons, and attack, seeking to drive the defilers from the crypt. During the brief periods when you’re active, you can think, you can feel, you can try to remember your past — but you can’t escape. And when you’ve driven out or killed the adventurers, you return to your inert state.

And the years pass. The centuries pass. The millennia pass.

The players begin by choosing their character — either a simple human skeleton wielding a sword or axe or bow, or some sort of unusual skeleton — a headless corpse, a nonhuman race, a fully inhuman monster.

You can personalize each skeleton as you please, and each character sheet includes questions you can potentially ask to help recover your own memories.

After that, all the players collaborate to determine what the tomb looks like, how it’s decorated, what treasures it contains.

And then the lights are switched off briefly. And when the lights come back on, it’s time for the skeletons to fight off their first tomb robbers. Once they’ve been driven off or killed (the outcome is never in doubt — the game isn’t about combat, and the skeletons won’t crumble for eons) and once the skeletons have had a few brief moments to ponder their forgotten lives, they return to their alcoves and their dreamless slumber.

The tomb and even the skeletons themselves are altered as the eons grind past. Walls can crack, sarcophagi can split open, metal tarnishes, cloth decays. Skeletons can lose bones, their weapons can warp, even the enchantments animating them can fade. The tables for these effects are particularly evocative: Glory Fades, Worlds Crumble, Time Devours, and Gods Laugh.

In time, however, even these deathless skeletons will fall. They will be defeated, their bones scattered, their tomb ransacked, and their consciousness sinking into the darkness one final time.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Is it horror? I think it certainly is. It’s not just that you’re playing the cursed undead, doomed to spend eternity fighting to protect a long-dead wizard’s Man Cave. There’s also the horror of the slow passage of deep time — the fact that every time you awaken, centuries can pass, with the world around you drastically changed, with the knowledge that your loved ones — who you may eventually remember — are long gone, that your own ancestors are likely dead, that you can only realize this for brief periods before you’re forced back down into the blackness for another few thousand years.

But it’s also something that transcends horror, too. The slow uncovering of your memories — What’s your name? Who did you love? Who were your rivals and friends? How did you die? What were your triumphs? — creates a game with a strong theme of loss, melancholy, and sorrow, but also a sense that there are some things that are timeless, and that death, though worth fighting against, can eventually become something to be embraced.

If you and your friends are getting bored with dungeon crawls with your murder hobos, take a break to give them a look at how the other half died.

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Take a Walk on the Wyld Side

Okay, as long as I’ve got the time and the energy, I’m gonna keep reviewing some good horror. Today, let’s take a look at one of my favorite books of the last few years, Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand.

The story is told as an oral history of a 1970s British psychedelic folk band called Windhollow Faire. Their first album was an unexpected smash hit, but since then, tough times have followed the group. One of the group’s singers recently committed suicide, and they are expected to release their sophomore album soon.

The band is a mix of personalities, all skilled musicians, and all very young. There’s Ashton, a supremely skilled bassist; Jon, the drummer, still in the closet about his sexuality; Will, a multi-talented musician who plays rhythm guitar, fiddle, and mandolin; and Lesley, the group’s sole American, a charismatic and hard-partying singer.

But the true virtuoso of the group is their lead singer and guitarist Julian Blake, a reclusive, eccentric genius.

They’ve traveled to an old run-down mansion called Wylding Hall for a little isolation, partly to rehearse, partly to mourn their deceased bandmate, partly to reconnect with each other musically, and partly to drink, get stoned, and party.

The summer is fun for everyone but… weird. Lots of strange happenings here and there. Nothing much worth mentioning, everyone thinks… but a lot of very unusual stuff going on.

And at the end of the summer, the band’s manager comes for a visit and brings his new state-of-the-art portable recording studio, all stored in the back of his van. Everyone’s been rehearsing for months, and they decide to take the new equipment for a test drive. The band sits down together in the courtyard of the mansion and plays a full album’s worth of music, all live, all one take. When the last note is played, a local kid with a camera snaps a few pictures of the band.

The music is perfect. The photos are used to create the iconic album cover. The record, named “Wylding Hall,” becomes an instant classic, acclaimed by critics, loved by fans… but quickly gone from the airwaves.

And Windhollow Faire never records another album. Because Julian Blake vanished into thin air the day after the album was recorded.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The most enthusiastic thumbs up I can give. This is a fantastic book, deliciously weird, and perfect for any reader who loves slow, subtle, creepy horror.

While much of the novella is focused on the band members, their interactions, and their recollections years after the fact, little tidbits of strangeness are scattered throughout the narrative. Wylding Hall itself is not just an old mansion but downright ancient, dating back to the 14th century and continuously built up and expanded over the centuries, so different wings of the house are from wildly different times and architectural styles — a Victorian wing, a Tudor wing, a Norman wing — and some even older…

The house is a maze of empty rooms, locked doors which are sometimes mysteriously unlocked, stairwells that lead nowhere, a room carpeted with thousands of dead, mutilated songbirds.

And every member of the band, at one point or another, suffers a small, minor injury that leaves behind a lasting, painful scar.

Even the band’s visits outside the house turn out weird. The local pub, the Wren, is mostly normal — aside from a lot of weird photos of wren hunters on the walls. And unusual bird imagery can be found almost everywhere, both inside Wylding Hall and out.

And the photographs of the band taken by the local amateur photographer focus on a girl in white who no one noticed, no one knew, no one saw again. And she clearly held the deepest and darkest secrets of anyone else.

But all the strange happenings, all the unusual moments, they can all be explained away. Life is full of strange coincidences, little surprises, odd things that never make sense. Life is strange, but the strange is, once you look at it, perfectly ordinary.

Until that moment when it isn’t ordinary at all. Until that moment when reality shifts just a bit too far out of alignment. Until that moment when you have to walk away from your friends and burn your photos because you can never look at each other again without remembering the fear.

Most people think of this book as a ghost story, a tale of a haunted house. To me, this could never be a mundane, commonplace haunting. This is a story of a group of friends accidentally straying into a liminal, otherworldly place with rules that cannot be understood, penalties that last a lifetime, and knowledge too terrible to believe. The master of Wylding Hall is cruel, capricious, beautiful, bizarre, monstrous, and all-powerful.

If you love rock and roll, if you love glorious, eerie weirdness, if you love beautifully told horror, you will want to pick this one up.

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Treats and Tricks

I wasn’t expecting this book to come out ’til mid-October, but it showed up early! So after a fast read-through, here’s our Halloween season review of Halloween Season by Lucy A. Snyder

Snyder loves Halloween, and it’s surprising to think it took this long to get a specifically Halloween-themed collection of short stories put together. Some of them have only slight connections to the Best Holiday of the Year — in other words, they may just be set near Halloween — and a couple are really Christmas stories, but still, there’s a nice big honkin’ dose of Halloween goodness here for anyone who loves October 31.

So what kind of stories do we have here?

  • Beggars’ Night – Probably the best Halloween poem in existence.
  • Hazelnuts and Yummy Mummies – An accidental taste of drugged cookies sends a woman on a trip to the Halloweens of her past.
  • Cosmic Cola – A Halloween-loving teenager moves to a new town with dark secrets and must escape from dangers she can’t even imagine.
  • What Dwells Within – Chaos spellcaster Jessie Shimmer and her familiar Pal, stars of Snyder’s “Spellbent” series, track down a kidnap victim with a supernatural twist.
  • In the Family – When food allergies make life impossible, you must turn to your family for support.
  • Wake Up Naked Monkey You’re Going to Die – The final fight in the War on Christmas Monsters is not going well…
  • The Tingling Madness – Facing danger from cultists with their own public-access TV channels? Buckaroos and Ladybucks can change the channel to the only Chuck Tingle network, the Tingler!

Verdict: Thumbs up. Y’all know I’ve been a longtime fan of Snyder’s brand of twisted, knife-edge horror, and she brings her A-game here, particularly with tales like “Visions of the Dream Witch,” “In the Family,” and “The Kind Detective.” She has the ability to get her stories under your skin, to take familiar tales in directions you didn’t expect, and to surprise you with insights you never expected.

She also shows some excellent skills for YA fiction — “Cosmic Cola” has some very strong horror vibes, but its young protagonist is wonderfully appealing and fun — plus there are some possible connections to other upcoming YA Snyder fiction, too.

And Halloween is a fun holiday, too, not just a day for blood and guts, and this collection probably has more light-hearted tales than have been in a single collection by Snyder since her earlier days. Almost every other story has some strong humor elements, and about half could be classified as punch-your-mouth funny. So yes, it’s more than possible to get your laughs and your scares at the same time — just like any good Halloween.

And also, we’ve gotta put our hands together for that beautiful cover art by Lynne Hansen! It sets the mood wonderfully, and much like whoever’s about to open that bright orange door, it’s eager to invite you inside…

So yes, kids, go pick it up! Get it before Halloween if you can, but it’s the kind of book that lets you enjoy spooky season all year ’round.

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Hey, my critters, sorry for yet another long stretch between blog posts. Unfortunately, October through December always tends to be a busy period for me, and there are too often times when I’ve got too many chores going on.

But hey, October is a great month for reviewing some good horror books, right? Why don’t we start things off with a look at Garden of Eldritch Delights by Lucy A. Snyder.

I’ve long been a fan of Snyder’s short stories, and I was pleased as punch when this came out back in 2018. Honestly, a lot of us horror fans know to pick up the new books by Lucy as soon as they hit the shelves. Her edgy, bloody, sexy horror tales have been picking up Bram Stoker Awards for years, and this new collection adds a few extra genres to enjoy, including science fiction, steampunk, and heroic fantasy.

Some of the stories we find inside are:

  • “Executive Functions” – A wealthy sociopath who thinks he’s a master of the business world gets a quick lesson on who the real masters are and exactly where he fits in the pecking (and puking) order.
  • “The Gentleman Caller” – A gift of a magic necklace gives a deformed woman a chance at the good life — until her benefactor reveals the horrifying cost.
  • “The Yellow Death” – A woman goes from the victim of a vampire apocalypse to a biker badass — and then meets her long-lost sister, who reveals her secret heritage…
  • “Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars” – The best way to describe this one is a mashup of Lovecraft, Frankenstein, and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in a perfect military space opera setting.
  • “A Hero of Grünjord” – A heroic warrior and her dragon successfully down a flying saucer (!!!), and then travel to a distant, dying kingdom, all while weighing the question of whether to marry into the royal family.
  • Plus there’s the astonishingly beautiful pre-apocalypse tale of “Sunset on Mott Island,” where the rise of the Old Ones takes a back seat to a quiet meditation on death and mercy.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Besides the usual assortment of amazing plotlines, shocking reveals, blood-drenched horrors, and mind-fracturing monsters, one of the great pleasures of Snyder’s stories are her characters. They’re deeply realized people, and they often have the kinds of unique characteristics you won’t find in any other work of fiction. Looking for a formerly conjoined twin who suddenly acquires the ability to body-switch via telephone? A woman with Turner’s syndrome who can rewrite reality? A woman whose terrible scars mark her as the new queen of the world? You’ll get to meet all of them here.

Snyder’s brilliant horror is the spotlight in most of these stories — and justifiably so, as she’s got a knack for terrifying tales that dig deep into your skin and set up epic shocks along every quivering nerve ending — but a lot of the fun of this collection is watching how she works her magic in new kinds of stories, from cyberpunk action to gritty fantasy.

I thought this one was a lot of fun — go pick it up!

Oh, and Snyder has another book coming out this month — the seasonal collection “Halloween Season.” I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish reading it before the 31st, but I’ll give it my best shot…

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Kids in Capes

The next few weeks are probably gonna be crazy busy for me, but I feel like taking care of a fast review a nice superhero prose novel, right? Let’s take a look at Capeville: The Death of the Black Vulture by Matt Mikalatos.

John Ajax is a normal kid looking forward to a normal summer. Playing video games, hanging out with friends, all the usual stuff. But things never turn out the way you want.

John certainly didn’t expect to deal with an attack by a duplicating supervillain. He didn’t plan on meeting a talking dog. He never thought his parents would start a massively destructive fight with the police or that they would ship him off to stay with his cranky superhero-hating grandfather on an island full of superheroes.

And he sure didn’t expect to meet a lot of new friends with superpowers of their own. He didn’t expect to meet up with a robot who claimed that John himself was the Black Vulture, a superhero who died years ago. He didn’t expect to meet up with the maniac who murdered the previous Black Vulture. And he didn’t expect to learn that someone planned to detonate a doomsday device to kill all the superheroes on the island.

That’s an awful lot of stuff to do during one summer vacation.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The plot is big and fun and wide-ranging and frequently hilariously loopy, but the big joy you’ll get out of this book is the characters, particularly the supporting cast. John is a nice enough character, but I actually kept wishing for more time with all his friends — the Gecko, Lightning Kat, Pronto, and Jupiter Girl. Frank Hydra is a wonderfully weird villain, too.

But even the minor characters have cool names and powers and personalities — and leave you wanting to learn more about them. I’d love to read a book — or a comic! — about the gloriously weird Avant Guard or Chrononaut and the Time Skippers or Dogface or the Muck. I am, frankly, keeping my fingers crossed for all of these things.

Looking for a fun novel about young superheroes with a lot of excitement and tons of incredible characters? Pick this one up.

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Flea Caller

It’s been too long since I wrote a post here, so let’s try to get back on schedule. We’ll start out with a novel I read a couple years back — Flea in the Dark by Devon Stevens.

Our plotline: Teresa Manzano is a pretty typical teenager — she just wants to hang out with her friends, smoke some pot, and not have to deal with her irritating half-sister. Felicia — or as everyone calls her, Flea — is a weirdo, obsessed with insects and scary movies, and she’s too young, and worst of all, Teresa is going to have to babysit her over the weekend when she’d rather be out partying with her friends on the outskirts of Albuquerque.

And even when Teresa drags her out to her party in the country, Flea still manages to get into trouble — kidnapped by La Llorona herself!

What, wait a minute! La Llorona? The horrific Weeping Woman of Mexican folklore? The ghost who prowls rivers and waterways abducting and drowning children? She’s real?! This is way out of Teresa’s league, isn’t it?

Soon enough, Teresa has an encounter with a horrific witch, who grants her the abilities she needs to try to find Flea, and Teresa takes a trip to the secret side of Albuquerque, a constantly shifting city populated by dangerous animal spirits where the architecture of the modern city coexists with long-gone landmarks.

Can Teresa navigate the familiar but bizarrely altered Albuquerque, challenge the spirits blocking her way, and still manage to face off with the most dangerous ghost of all to save her half-sister’s life?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This was Stevens’ first novel, and I very much want to see him publish some more books soon. This book is a thoroughly grand read. We get to watch Teresa make her way back and forth across the ABQ, making friends and enemies among the spirits, and slowly turn herself from a self-centered teenager into someone willing to take colossal risks and make smart sacrifices for the sake of her loved ones — even her irritating half-sister loved ones.

Using a combination of her temporary magical weapons and her own natural guile and sass, Teresa puts the hurt on enemies and makes many desperate, narrow escapes. She’s an unforgettable heroine.

Some of the greatest pleasures in this book are likely the vast collection of great characters, from Teresa and Flea to Teresa’s high school friends all the way to the wild variety of spirits infesting Albuquerque’s spirit realm.

Even minor characters — like the spirit owl reading a newspaper, the pack of playful coyote pups running loose on the bus, the devious mountain lion mayor, and the dancing kachina spirits directing traffic — are interesting and well-realized characters who you wish you could spend more time with.

The book is likely a must-read for anyone who’s lived in Albuquerque or wants to know more about the city. The Duke City is a character in the story just as much as it is a setting, as Teresa criss-crosses back and forth, into and outside of the city limits, and pays visits to well-known local landmarks — as well as old landmarks in Spirit Albuquerque that have been demolished for years.

If you’re looking for a fun novel with fantastic characters and settings with great action and plenty of adventure, you’ll certainly want to pick this one up.

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Happy Birthday, Clifford Simak!

Hey, I noticed that today is the birthday of Clifford D. Simak, science fiction grandmaster and one of my favorite writers. Let’s take a look at his very best book — City.

(FYI, that’s a scan of the first copy of this book I ever got, and it’s still my favorite because I love the retro sci-fi cool this cover is drenched in…)

This is the kind of story that exemplifies why I love so many stories from science fiction’s Golden Age — it has stereotypical sci-fi elements like robots, mutants, and aliens, it has completely unscientific elements like talking dogs and intelligent ants, it has wild, breathtaking ideas, it has characters you can’t help but love and hate, and its glimpse of the future is simultaneously grim and hopeful. It’s far from a perfect book — there are ongoing assumptions in the story that most of humanity, regardless of cultural differences, will always speak and act with one voice. There are no important female characters in the whole book. And some of the science is distractingly goofy. Nevertheless, Simak is one of science fiction’s unrecognized geniuses, and this is his masterwork.

“City” is the story of how mankind dies, told from the perspective of the intelligent dogs who have taken over the Earth in our absence. It’s all framed as an attempt by the dogs to assemble an oral history of the planet, including the improbable myths of a creature called Man that used to run things in the distant past. Much of that history follows the lives of a single human family, the Websters, and a nearly immortal robot named Jenkins.

In the initial story, told only a short distance in our own future, humanity is in the process of abandoning all of its cities. Mostly plotless, it serves mainly to allow us to follow the transition from today’s urban society to a future society using advanced technology to embrace a more pastoral lifestyle. Technological advances in transportation and communications have rendered the city unnecessary — people can live anywhere they want and still stay in contact with their friends, families, and coworkers. Anyone can feed themselves with a hydroponic garden. Few people want to live in big, crowded, smelly cities, which are mostly abandoned except for some squatters. Only a few old-timers still cling to the old ways.

A century later, we get to our first really important character, Jerome Webster, a doctor who’s been turned into an agoraphobic, terrified of open spaces, by his comfortable life at home. His every need is taken care of instantly by the family’s robots, including the butler, Jenkins. Webster is called upon to travel to Mars, where history’s greatest philosopher, Juwain, is gravely ill — if he lives, he will soon develop a new philosophy that will propel humanity to the very peaks of perfect enlightenment. But Webster finds himself completely unable to undertake the journey to save his friend.

We jump forward several decades and sees the introduction of the Dogs, as Jerome Webster’s grandson surgically gives his pet the ability to speak. We also meet Joe, a mutant who is able to live for centuries and is gifted with extraordinary intelligence. A completely amoral creature, he has spent over a hundred years helping humans, but he’s getting bored with that. So he steals the last notes on Juwain’s revolutionary Martian philosophy, just for the pleasure of hurting humanity. We also get our first look at the ants, as Joe puts a nest on the path to higher intelligence by protecting it for a few winters, then sadistically demolishes the mound. But the ants have already learned quite a bit, and they’ll be back…

The years march on, and we leave Earth to visit the hostile surface of Jupiter, where scientists have attempted to explore the planet by transforming themselves into creatures that can survive the corrosive atmosphere — but none of these scientists have ever returned. What predator could be killing them off?

Decades, centuries, millennia pass. The Webster family continues on, slowly dooming the human race with each decision it makes. The Dogs continue on, growing in sophistication and morality. Jenkins and the other robots continue on, shepherding the new animal civilization through the years. The ants continue on, becoming more and more powerful. Some species die off, some species evolve into new forms, some species abandon Earth forever. Life continues, on and on. Earth continues.

Verdict: Thumbs up. No question, it’s a melancholy, almost heart-breaking story. If you’ve long dreamed that mankind would live forever, this story will subject you to the spectre of the human race embracing extinction, of humanity’s greatest works of science and art being forgotten, of even Man’s Best Friend leaving our home planet behind in the face of an expansionist alien species. Simak’s “Epilog” (which is not present in all editions of the novel) is even sadder. “City” is a book with few truly happy endings.

And yet, I still see this as a hopeful book, and it fills me with joy when I read it. Perhaps it’s the beauty of the writing and of the story. Perhaps it’s the fact that many of mankind’s creations — robots, dogs, storytelling, morality and ethics — continue thousands of years beyond our end, even if our status as the creators are long forgotten. Maybe I just really like dogs.

Maybe I enjoy the novel so much because I like the way it’s acknowledged that, eventually, all species must die out — extinction is inevitable, but I think Simak knew that our story isn’t finished yet. Enjoy the good things that humanity has brought about, recognize the bad things that we’ve caused, resolve to help move the species farther along the evolutionary chain, scientifically, artistically, socially.

In the end, I think it’s a story about life and death and memory. Years will pass, centuries will pass. We will die, and those who follow us will remember us for a while. But we will eventually be forgotten. That thought may make you feel depressed and melancholy. But life, in some form, continues, and where there’s life, there’s hope.

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