Friday, December 9, 2016
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
I’m a man who appreciates innovation. It doesn’t take avant-garde insanity to grab my attention, just the gumption to approach things a little differently. As a writer and avid reader, I especially love books with an innovative approach. For this particular project, John F.D. Taff can proudly claim the title of visionary. Inspired by a crude scribble in a public restroom, Taff eventually decided to assemble a crew of miscreants and madmen with one goal in mind: each write a novella with the title “I Can Taste the Blood.” The result? A themed anthology that essentially has no theme at all. The five stories contained within could not be more disparate from one another, but they still fit so perfectly well together. Allow me to elaborate a bit.
The first story, by Josh Malerman, succeeds for two main reasons: 1. It exists outside of the restraints of an era, and 2. It is pretty goddamned creepy. A slow burn about a man pursued in the desert by a mysterious fiend that will eventually get under your skin and burrow so deep that you can’t remove it, not even with tweezers.
J. Daniel Stone is the mastermind behind the next story. If someone had shown me this story with no author’s name attached to it and told me it was an unpublished story written by Clive Barker circa The Books of Blood, I might have believed them (and, just to be clear, that should be considered a compliment of the highest order). This is not to say the story relies on sheer pastiche, but it does swim in the same stream as Barker’s early work. Perverse grotesqueries abound, waxing poetic about the boundaries of film and art.
Up third is Joe Schwartz. Less horror, more transgressive crime fiction about bad men doing even worse things. It jumps around in time a bit, which I can definitely dig. I really loved his style overall and without a doubt want to read more from him in the future. However, his ending did commit what I consider to be a cardinal sin in fiction. He almost got away with it, though, and he probably would have had he pushed it just a little further. A minor gripe in an otherwise killer story, though. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Christ? Where do I even start with Erik T. Johnson? A mad genius? Perhaps. I can’t make a single lick of sense of his story, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it. I like a good challenge. Imagine Gummo by way of Beckett and Burroughs and you’ll be somewhere in the ballpark, but also so far off you might as well be in a different galaxy. Who needs a clear, traditional plot when the language is this mind-melting, when the entire vibe of the tale is like a ganon of leeches sucking your soul away? Exhausting in the best way possible.
The final story is written by the man John F.D. Taff himself. I’ve been raving about Taff for a while…I really do think he’s one of the most underrated writers in horror today. He’s been called the “King of Pain” for good reason. His stories have this way of tapping into the deepest, darkest canyons of your soul. Terrifying, but with a strong emotional core. No joke…one of Taff’s stories in his Little Deaths collection actually had me bawling on my lunch break at work. Though every story in this collection is a standout in its own way, Taff takes the crown here. This story is a bit more gruesome than his usual fare. It takes body horror to a new extreme, but never loses the sensitivity that is ultimately Taff’s brand. I promise, you’ll never think of teeth and mouths the same again.
I can’t recommend this anthology enough. Grey Matter Press continues to prove why they are such a strong force in the modern world of horror literature.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Almost since the inception of punk rock, various forms of fictional media have misrepresented the genre. Sure, there have been a few films, books, etc. over the last four decades that have gotten it right, but there are many, many more that miss the mark completely. Almost without fail, the fiction that gets it right succeeds because the creator is someone who actually has a stake in the game. Enter David Agranoff, a writer who is not shy about the fact that he’s been deep in the trenches of punk rock and hardcore for a very long time. Aside from a couple of rookie mistakes that I promise to give Agranoff a slap on the wrist for next time I see him, such as claiming Toxic Reasons were from Indiana when they were actually from Dayton, Ohio, and the strange phonetic misspelling of Die Kreuzen (I realize most people mistakenly pronounce this band’s name “Die Krusen,” but that’s no excuse!), the details and the vibe are authentic. Anyway…allow me to move away from the nitpicking and onto the story.
Punk Rock Ghost Story blends two eras together, the first in 1982, when hardcore punk was still raw and fresh and bands were attempting their best Lewis and Clark impressions across America, and the second in 2006, long after punk had gone through many different forms and become commercialized to a sickening degree (despite the best efforts of those committed to the hardcore underground). A young band from Bloomington, Indiana, named People’s Uprising, set to go on their first cross-country tour, purchases a van that once belonged to a semi-legendary local band from the early 80s called The Fuckers, whose vocalist vanished in the middle of their only tour and was never heard from again. Oh yeah—did I mention the tour van is now haunted? Because that definitely throws a major wrench in the gears of the People’s Uprising tour. Things eventually go very wrong, but you’ll have to read the book to find out the details.
Arguably the greatest strength of Punk Rock Ghost Story is Agranoff’s ability to zero in on the ups and downs of being in a small, virtually unknown band on tour (something I can speak about from experience). Sometimes being on the road is wonderful and humbling, while other times it’s possible to come close to the brink of despair. Every new town promises wonders, but many do not deliver. If I am to offer criticism on the book (aside from the many typos throughout that I promised myself I wouldn’t mention…oops), I will say that I wish there had been deeper insight into the lives of the members of People’s Uprising. I can relate to the fact that, at that age and at that level of involvement in the punk rock scene, it can consume most of your life. However, I would have liked a little more information about their individual lives outside of punk. We get a glimpse of this with some of the members of The Fuckers, which I appreciated, but I wanted more.
Agranoff’s pacing is brisk, the story is a fun ride, and I think every modern touring band should probably carry a copy of this book in their van and read it at their darkest moments, if only to remind themselves that things could always be a hell of a lot worse.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
Friday, October 7, 2016
Grand Mal Press just released an awesome book today: Volume 1 of the San Diego Horror Professionals anthology. This features my short story "The New Music," as well as other dark tales by David Agranoff, Anthony Trevino, Ryan C. Thomas, Bryan Killian, and Robert Essig. It's up for grabs on Amazon right now for the low price of $7.99. Grab it for your significant other/sibling/child/aquatic pet/blow-up doll and give it as a Halloween gift this year. What, you say there's no such thing as Halloween gifts? Let's start this year. It is, after all, the only holiday that matters.
Here's the link:
UPDATE: There is now also an e-book version, which you can purchase here for 99 cents:
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Just when I think I’ve already discovered every fantastic writer I’m ever going to love, along comes someone like Brian Evenson. To be fair, he’s been doing this whole writing thing for quite some time now, but his work is new to me. Better late than never, because I’m hooked on this short story collection and, like a freshly converted heroin addict, now I need more.
The easiest way to describe the stories in this book would be “literary horror.” However, even that somewhat broad description seems somewhat limiting for Evenson’s work. I hate to use the term “elevated genre,” because that implies other contributions to the genre are less worthy (which may be true in some cases, but ultimately this is not an opinion I stand behind). However, if ever this term has been appropriate, it’s for a book like this. These stories often go to some very dark places, but from a different angle than the average writer might approach them. I can’t easily pinpoint what makes them so horrific. Evenson feels no need to over-explain anything. The worlds he creates are as they are. And what they are is some varying degree of wrong. It’s that little bit of something “off” that sticks with me after reading each story, leaving me wondering what might be flawed in our own world. Well, what else might be flawed, rather. It is as if the gruesomeness of our reality has been twisted ever-so-slightly into the reality that Evenson envisions, so much so that the lines between fact and fiction can become blurred if the reader allows such a transgression. I don’t truly feel scared until after completing each story, like having a nightmare that was quickly forgotten at daybreak, but then remembered when alone in a public restroom located in a no-name town off a deserted highway. How else can I describe my reaction to the final scene of “Black Bark,” or the entirety of “Seaside Town”? All of the tales are filled with despair, lost acuity, indecision, beautiful dark emptiness, or some combination.
Evenson’s prose has a minimalist feel, but it is crafted in a somewhat poetic manner that manages to avoid pretension (a difficult feat that many so-called “literary” writers fail miserably at). Not a word wasted, and his cadence and many of his chosen beats are stunning. I was often left wondering what actually transpired, but I was completely content with that because the subtleties are what make these stories so raw and unsettling.
Very rarely do I describe authors as “brilliant,” even those whose work I adore dearly. However, I think Evenson might be worthy of such a title. These are stories that should be remembered a hundred years from now, required reading for anyone seeking the cream of the crop from this era of dark fiction.
Monday, September 19, 2016
With stories by Clive Barker, John F.D. Taff, Paul Tremblay, and Neil Gaiman, how can you go wrong? You just plain can’t. Add in a few authors who I was somewhat familiar with and a few more I had never even heard of and there’s a lot to love here. Murano and Ward have assembled a collection of what they call “beautiful horror stories.” Other than that, this is not technically a themed anthology. These stories are literary, they are poetic, they deal with themes all humans are familiar with and have been used over and over and over again. Yet—they are all still unique in their own way. As with any anthology, there are some stories that are stronger than others, but thankfully no stinkers.
The strongest story in my opinion is Paul Tremblay’s “A Haunted House Is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken.” It is constructed like a Choose Your Own Adventure story about a girl visiting a house haunted by the ghosts of her past. Depending on how you decide to read it, the story could technically get locked in a forever-long loop, which is the most terrifying element. If I had been in a different state of mind when reading it, I might have still been trapped. Tremblay just has a wonderful style, and he hasn’t disappointed me yet. My second favorite story in the collection is “Picking Splinters” by Brian Kirk, an extremely dark and hopeless tale about a man whose lost daughter is found many years after she went missing. Yowza. I was pretty exhausted after reading that one. Kirk is now on my list of “Authors I Need to Read More Of.”
Style is a big deal in this book, perhaps even more so than plot. Yes, every story has some sort of plot (although some were easier to follow than others), but what’s most important about Gutted is that every writer has a distinct voice and approach to their pieces. They cannot be interchanged, which I think is one of the main keys to being a good writer. No one else can write your story as well as or better than you.
The cover art is pretty great (and appropriate), and each story is accompanied by a black and white Luke Spooner illustration (a man whose work I was definitely familiar with since one of his illustrations preceded a story of mine a few years ago). Nothing more to really say about this one except that you should probably pick up a copy. You know, because it’s real good and all that stuff.
Monday, August 22, 2016
Okay, so before I get started with anything else about this book, can we please talk about this cover art? You won’t get the full effect just viewing it on this blog, since it’s a mega-cool wraparound, but holy mutha this is one of the nicest covers I’ve seen for a horror book in such a long time. It’s so weird to think how many awful covers there are out there, uh…“gracing” the covers of various horror novels and anthologies, when the genre is more perfect than any other for the grotesquely gorgeous. Yet, somehow, so few get the visuals right. Makes no sense to me. But Brad C. Hodson and Benjamin Kane Ethridge got it right when they chose Aeron Alfrey as their artist. Luckily, that’s not the only thing the editors got right.
With Madhouse, Hodson and Ethridge have chosen to take an approach that is becoming more popular these days (an approach I’m all for and one I’m shocked was not more common in the past): the shared world anthology. However, Madhouse is more than just a collection of stories that happen to take place in the same universe. The shorts written by the various authors also share space with chapters written by the editors. The result: a fairly cohesive novel masquerading as an anthology. I know it sounds like I’m tickling the editors’ pink parts, but they really did a bang up job of creating this world and guiding the authors they chose to adhere to it and keep a certain amount of continuity. A few characters even appear throughout different stories (Drake is an especially memorable and detestable character). I imagine this was a serious pain in the tuckus to orchestrate, but the hard work paid off.
The premise? A major sandstorm hits a behavioral center in Arizona and things go batshit crazy from there. A lot of mysterious plot threads, most of which remain unexplained (which I’m fine with). Though there is no filler throughout Madhouse and it was difficult to choose standouts, there were a few stories I’d pick if a gun were pressed to my head: “Birdman” by R.B Payne, “The Writing on the Wall” by Robin Spriggs (less a story, more a brilliantly mad recital), “The Fraud” by Jeff Strand, and “Foodfight” by John Skipp. Skipp’s is the most peculiar to me. I recently read this same story in his collection The Art of Horrible People and couldn’t make any sense of it, I suppose because it was removed from its true context. It probably shouldn’t have been included in that collection, but reading it here, as it was meant to be, well let’s just say I really loved it. It’s just plain bonkers (not that the rest of Madhouse isn’t pretty bonkers, but you kind of have to expect a bit of next-level craziness from Skipp). In addition to the awesome stories, there is also a ton of additional killer art throughout by Alfrey.
I can’t recommend this book enough. In many ways, this level of creativity and quality is what I expect of modern horror, so I offer a hearty thank you to everyone involved in the project for delivering on the promise quite a few other writers/editors/publishers do not.