Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review: I Can Taste the Blood by Various Authors, Edited by John F.D. Taff & Anthony Rivera

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 If someone had shown me this story with no author’s name attached to it and told me it was an unpublished story written by Clive Barker circa The Books of Blood, I might have believed them (and, just to be clear, that should be considered a compliment of the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

Book Review: Punk Rock Ghost Story by David Agranoff

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.