Saturday, February 27, 2010

Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom (Arcana) by Bruce Brown

When you mention the name “Lovecraft”, many things come to mind, most of them dealing with homages, pastiches, “reinventions” or even the subtle influence of “Lovecraftian” themes in a work. Regardless, it serves as a reminder that while H. P. Lovecraft may not have achieved widespread fame while he lived, his work has endured and influenced countless of writers after him. Anyone decently read in horror or dark fiction knows his name and possesses at least a passing knowledge of his legacy, one that has inspired short stories, novels, poems, role playing games, movies...even an episode of The Real Ghostbusters.


In any case, the world has become saturated with Lovecraft, so when a “new” Lovecraftian creation comes along, it's hard-pressed to stand out from all the rest. Howard Lovecraft & The Frozen Kingdom, written by Bruce Brown, does just that. Serious and tongue-in-cheek at the same time, this new graphic novel published by Arcana introduces us to a young Howard Lovecraft and his misadventures after receiving an early Christmas present from his deranged father – the legendary Necromonicon itself.

Brought to vivid life by Renzo Podesta, this four-chapter graphic novel regales perhaps the first of many adventures wrought by the dread Necromonicon. When young Howard Lovecraft accidentally opens a portal to the frozen kingdom of R'yleh, he's sucked into a world born of an “unholy marriage of fairy tales and nightmares”. He's sent on a quest to recover a lost holy book from the awful demon responsible for R'yleh's fate, accompanied by a cheeky – though perhaps untrustworthy – being named Thu Thu Hmong. Howard survives his adventure, and though his asylum-bound father pleads with him to destroy the Necromonicon, he keeps it to himself, reveling in the wonders it may hold in store.

Perhaps The Frozen Kingdom's greatest strength is its willingness to wink at readers regarding Lovecraft's classic aura of doom and hopelessness. While Lovecraft die-hards may be put-off by its light tone, it shows us a NEW vision of Howard Lovecraft: precocious, whimsical, witty – maybe even a bit snotty – and hopeful, relatively untainted by the inevitable burden of “awful, unknowable things”.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Reunion, (PS Publishing), by Rick Hautala

“Reunion” is a bittersweet coming of age tale that strikes just the right notes. Though it vibrates with the melancholic truth that childhood eventually ends and that everyone changes – even beloved friends – it still holds out the hope that we can change our lives for the better...if we really want to.

It's the end of August and thirteen year old Jackie and his best friend Chris have embarked upon one last camping trip. Summer is ending, and also – the coming Fall brings Jackie and Chris to junior high, a strange new world full of different rules and expectations. Though Chris is fully alive in the moment, focused on this last night of freedom, the future weighs heavily on Jackie. He can't shake the feeling that things are changing, that he and Chris are growing apart. He wonders if perhaps tonight, of all nights, they should stay in their tent and away from mischief.

Chris is determined, however. An old high school class is celebrating their fortieth reunion at a local country club in town. The plan: sneak into town, haunt the party and see what goods are left unattended for the picking. Jackie's feeling of foreboding swells, however. Something waits for them across the bridge into town, a turn of destiny that will bring into full effect this change he fears so desperately. Is this shadowy warning enough for Jackie to save both him and Chris? Or are they destined to be victims of fate, caught in the uncaring, grinding wheels of time?

It's hard to find the right balance between too depressing and too contrived, but Hautala does it well here. His rich narrative voice gives substance to the very adult fear of leaving the best days behind us, but he doesn't inspire hopelessness, rather a determination – however resigned – to push forward. Also, the plotting of “Reunion” is neat and tight, clever also. As a side note, like all PS Publishing titles, “Reunion” is a thing of beauty, featuring jacket art by Tomislav Tikulin.

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Scissors, (Leisure Fiction), Ray Garton

Ray Garton's “Scissors” is a highly original tale deeply rooted in a very human fear: that of psychosis, of losing one's hold on reality. In a work that is in turns emotional, disturbing and bittersweet, Garton proves once again that the most effective horror - the kind that resonates - comes not from without but within, from the darkened corners of our own hearts and minds.

Lingering discontent defines Stuart Mullond's existence. Raised in a religious family with a skewed definition of “truth”, dismissed as unimportant in school and now trapped in an uninspiring job, depression dogs his heels. He's found a measure of happiness with new girlfriend Amelia but is reminded often of his ex-wife's hurtful infidelity – especially since his ex Molly and Amelia have become friends, something that irritates him endlessly. Pestered by his widowed mother, ineffectual at work and alarmed by the growing distance between him and his son James, Stuart grapples with a crushing sense of defeat.

Worse, he can't forget a traumatic, childhood medical procedure. Nightmares of what Dr. Ferguson did fills his nights; the metallic snick-snick of his scissors ringing around every corner. Soon Stuart's nightmares become flesh, and he sees Dr. Ferguson everywhere. Is he dreaming? Hallucinating? Or has the good doctor returned to practice his twisted medicine on Stuart's son, James? What will Stuart do to protect his family from those awful, cutting scissors?

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this work is Garton's deep, sympathetic characters. Though he paints them very realistically with all too human faults, by the novel's end it's hard to find anyone to blame. There are no easy answers, here; just the echoing reminder that life is hard, cruel, and unfair...and that sacrifice is too often required to survive it. Also: things are never what they seem.

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*Note: reprint of Cemetery Dance's 2004 release.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Resurrectionist, (Leisure Fiction), by Wrath James White

In this serial-killer-thriller, Wrath James White has crafted a brutal story that moves fast and effectively. White approaches this in a unique and interesting way: what if you could be raped and murdered over and over again? What if you only remembered certain elements? Or nothing at all?

Sarah Lincoln and her husband Josh live in Las Vegas. Like many Americans they're doing their best to stay afloat, but lately they've grown more and more concerned as their neighbors lose their homes to foreclosure or flee from the escalating crime rate.

When a man named Dale moves in across the street, Sarah begins having nightmares of being raped and murdered. Every time she wakes, she's astonished to find herself and Josh unharmed. Sarah questions her sanity while Josh struggles with a past he wishes he could forget. One afternoon, Sarah finds their mattress soaked in blood and freshly cleaned patches of carpet leading away from their bed.

Unable to comprehend what's happening, Sarah and Josh look for evidence to end this mystery. What they find defies reality. With the help of a sympathetic detective and her partner, a race begins to stop Dale from doing what he does best. But since his victims aren't he actually committing a crime?

"The Resurrectionist" contains a compelling group of characters. White balances action and exposition well; weaving suspense that raises the blood pressure. White's penchant for blending brutality, fantastical elements and philosophical messages that push boundaries, break taboos, and leave readers thinking long after his story has ended is exemplified here.

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Reviewed by Ben Eads.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pleasure Model, (Heavy Metal Pulp/Tor Books), by Christopher Rowley

“Pleasure Model”, by Christoper Rowley, is the first installment of “Netherworld”, a new pulp series co-published by Tor Books and Heavy Metal Magazine. Combining the fantastic imagery of Heavy Metal Magazine with the grittiness of Noir fiction, “Pleasure Model” is a great guilty read that melds the best of both worlds: fantastic art and exciting storytelling. If nothing else, “Pleasure Model” is tremendous, pulpy fun.

Rook Venner has just been handed the kind of case that ends messy, not-alive-any-more sorts of ways. An assassinated sadist who also happens to be former Covert Ops has been dropped into his lap. To make matters worse, Rook's boss has ordered him to play coy with the federal authorities on this one. Something stinks worse than a bloody dead sadist, and Rook wonders if that's his cooked career.

At first, all leads hit dead ends...until Rook discovers an unlikely “witness” locked in the basement: an illegal “bod-mod”, still fresh from the box. Gene-grown clones grown to perfection, bod-mods exist for one thing only: to satisfy their owners. Grasping at straws, Rook takes the mod – named Pleasur, of course – to the station as evidence, which draws the wrong kind of attention. Suddenly, everyone wants Rook dead and Pleasur terminated.

As more and more people die around them, Rook becomes convinced: the answers he seeks are locked deep inside Pleasur herself. His best chance? Get Pleasur an “update” to raise her intellect in hopes of helping her survive, as well as uncover the secrets buried inside her. However, updating a sex-slave to a higher state of awareness of herself and the depraved world she's been built to serve? The potential backfires are countless...and perhaps even fatal.

“Pleasure Model” evokes strains of “Blade Runner” with a terse, authentic Noir tone, mixed with the ethical ambiguities of a futuristic, amoral world and a cyberpunk sensibility. The story moves well and is told with a steady, authoritative hand, guaranteed to leave fans of both Noir and cyberpunk waiting for more.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Darkness on the Edge of Town, (Leisure Books), by Brian Keene

From bestselling author Brian Keene comes the much-awaited paperback adaptation of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, another installment in his expanding Labyrinth mythos. In many ways, this is Brian Keene at his best: “Darkness” is obsessively readable, demanding a finish in one sitting, and it exposes a bitter-sweet mix of human frailty and strength, while recounting the ages-old struggle between good and evil. Also a plus for Keene fans and collectors, Leisure's paperback edition is an expanded version of an earlier small press special edition, featuring 20,000 more words and a slightly different ending.

It comes like a “thief in the night”, the darkness that falls over Walden, Virginia, and it cuts the small town off from the world at large. Completely. No phones work, land-line or cell. Radios fall silent as all television channels drop off air. Hundreds of loved ones who drove past the darkness to work never return. Multiple theories arise: doomsday scenarios, apocalyptic predictions of doom, fears of nuclear war, perhaps even another terrorist attack. However, as attempts to breach the darkness end in disaster, a terrible truth becomes clear...

Something waits for them in the dark. It knows their names. Eats their fears, mimics their loved ones. Worse, its sly influence dampens their joy and hope, suppresses their courage, pricks their guilt and stokes their rage. As the days pass and the darkness persists, the townspeople of Walden become prey not only to the Things lurking in the dark...but to neighbors. Friends. Loved ones, also. The darkness is patient. It will wait forever to consume them...or until they consume each other.

Brian Keene continues to prove himself more than adapt at mixing myth, legend, and religion in an examination of man's place in the Universe. Lovecraft is there. Greek mythology is there, folklore, too. Still, this is Brian Keene: fast-paced with an authentic voice that resonates. For another peek into the Labyrinth, pick this up today.

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