July 24, 2017

The Hap(pening): a review of Joe R. Lansdale's "Hap and Leonard"

Hap and Leonard
by Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon Publications (2016)

I have been meandering through Lansdale's extensive works for several years now, and in that time I have come to consider him one of my all-time favorite storytellers. A big reason for that is his Hap and Leonard series of novels, which feature the hijinks of two east Texas ne'er-do-wells, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. But there are not just the novels, but also a smattering of short fiction, which has now been collected in this book from 2016 (a followup collection released in 2017). So I have to wonder if an abbreviated adventure is as satisfying as the novels.

For me, the meat of this collection came in the form of two novellas that had been previously published each on their own. The first, "Hyenas," kicks off with Hap showing up at the local bar to keep Leonard from getting hauled off by the cops after a donnybrook. Leonard's in cuffs, but relatively unscathed compared to the fellas littering the ground like so much tenderized steak. Impressed enough by the whooping, one of the guys hires Hap and Leonard to track down his little brother who has fallen in with a small gang of crooks. Witty banter and gritty brawling galore in this tale, and our heroes wind up much more invested in the younger brother's safety than they had ever anticipated.

The second novella is "Dead Aim," and it has our guys on protection duty once again, only this time it's for a woman who says he is being stalked and abused by her ex-husband. Lansdale's deftness with dialogue shines again, but the tone of the tale is a wee bit darker with things not shaping up as they should at first glance, and Hap and Leonard wind up caught in one more showdown with bloodthirsty types. This one was particularly great because it included Hap's lady love, Brett, who really feels like she turns the duo into a less than holy trinity.

The collection isn't all fisticuffs and gun fights, though. "Death by Chili" offers a bit more humor than most tales, as Hap and Leonard try to figure out how a champion chili cook died. Then there's "The Boy Who Became Invisible" and it's glimpse back and Hap's formative years.

Then there are the stories that are interludes of sorts that complement the existing novels, like "Veil's Visit" which takes place around the time Leonard burned down the crack house next door and includes Andrew Vachss with a coauthor credit, since one of his famous characters shows up at Hap's behest to bail out Leonard.

I'm not sure if it's the kind of book that works so well as an introduction to these characters, as there's a fair bit of winks and nods to what has come before that a newcomer just might not catch on to, but it's not like the stories are impenetrable to a new reader. One of the great things about the series has always been that Hap and Leonard are quickly identifiable and instantly likable. But a new reader should honestly go seek out the first novel, Savage Season, if they want to sample the waters. As for the existing fans and completists out there, this is something they will all want to get their hands on, assuming they haven't done so already.

July 21, 2017

Underwater, Under Pressure: a review of Brian Keene's "Pressure"

by Brian Keene
Thomas Dunne Books (2016)
276 pages

I haven't read all of Brian Keene's books, but of the ones I have I am invariably transported to some grizzled patch of Americana and I always walk away satisfied. So when I heard Pressure, Keene's latest novel from last year, featured a sea-faring thrill ride in the picturesque Indian Ocean, my curiosity got the better of me and I just had to see what he might try to pull off with this one.

Carrie Anderson, an ambitious young diver/oceanographer, is among the many who are investigating a strange natural phenomenon occurring off the coast of Mauritius. The ocean floor is collapsing beneath the wondrous "underwater waterfall." The tourist trap is now just that, sinking into the sea, and a full-scale evacuation is imminent if they can't figure out what's going on and how to stop it.

Kind of like a Lincoln & Child novel, Pressure embraces the cryptozoological discoveries without bogging itself down in the scientific minutia. A crisp pace keeps everything moving along, and Keene still manages to squeeze in some wonderful fleshing out of his characters, such as Carrie's obsessiveness to be the best. And the first. Plus there is the salty sea dog assisting her, Abhi, whose brokenhearted isolation drives him further out to sea every year. As for the creature they discover beneath the unusually icy depths, it is the scene stealer every time and one of Keene's more memorable monstrosities. And he's had a few.

Where things take a turn though is when the initial encounter with the monster is over and a new threat emerges, that in the form of a biotech company with an intense desire to gain exclusive knowledge and advancements from the newly discovered creature. The pressure, as it were, comes when Carrie finds herself caught in the middle of a creature seemingly bent on the destruction of all life and a corporation that seems bent on domination of all life.

Outside of a personal annoyance with how the third act transpired, which I found out of tune with nearly everything preceding it, Pressure was an exciting bit of monster mayhem. If there is ever a followup to be written to this novel, I'll certainly check it out, along with just about anything else Keene writes in the meantime.

July 17, 2017

Bonding Over Death: a review of Donald E. Westlake's "Forever and a Death"

Forever and a Death
by Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (2017)

Donald E. Westlake is responsible for penning a couple of my absolute favorite novels, so when I saw Hard Case Crime was set to publish one of his as-yet-unseen novels, which happened to be inspired by a treatment he once did for the James Bond franchise, I just had to check it out.

Now, if you're expecting this novel to be a James Bond type of story, with hi-tech gadgets and femme fatales and a lead character who kicks all kinds of ass without mussing his hair, then you can put those expectations to bed right now. This isn't that kind of novel. This is pure Westlake. That said, you can pretty easily pick up the echoes of a Bond story that Westlake refashioned into his own brand of story.

Right from the get-go, Forever and a Death presents itself as a villain's tale. Oh sure, we have our plucky hero in the form of a conscientious engineer who happens to throw a pretty good punch, but the lion's share of the story, and where it shines, is with the inner machinations of the lead villain and his henchmen. Industrialist Richard Curtis has a score to settle with Hong Kong where he was kicked out after it was handed back China in the 90s, and his engineer's prized invention of a soliton wave, which transforms seaside landfill and everything built on top of it into a giant mud puddle, is just how Curtis intends to do it.

Curtis' best laid plans are undermined at every turn, most of all it seems by his own hubris. He considers himself superior to everyone around him both in stature and in intellect, which quickly bites him in the ass when an environmentalist watchdog attempts to stop his soliton wave experiment off the coast of Australia. A young activist named ??? dives into the water and is swept up by the powerful artificial current that levels a small island. And when her body is recovered and found to have survived, albeit barely, Curtis realizes his plans could go up in smoke if she lives. Enter George Manville.

Manville, his engineer, feels responsible for the woman's condition, and when propositioned by Curtis to aide him in disposing of her, managing a daring escape back to Australia. From there, it is a cat-and-mouse chase of sorts between Curtis and Manville. Manville needs to alert the authorities to Curtis' ill deeds while evading capture and/or extermination, while Curtis needs to silence Manville by any means necessary long enough for him to see his ultimate plan come to fruition.

On the one hand, Westlake's attention to detail is something to behold. Nearly every supporting character is fleshed out to the fullest. We see why Curtis has earned a sworn enemy by a famed environmentalist. We see the desperation to regain lost status by one of Curtis' former employers turned freelance goon. But with all of these characters given the spotlight, the pacing of the novel takes a hit. A couple sections of the book even become downright plodding as "will he or won't he" questions of conscience are hung over one character's or another's head. The third act is breakneck, however, and offers an ending that one may find ill fitting for something Bond inspired, but it is perfectly suited to Westlake's style.

All things considered, it's a good read that stopped short of being great, which may be why Westlake never saw it published before his death. A thoughtfully imagined plot with some forgettable heroes and one damned good villain. It may not be the makings of a franchise like James Bond, but it's a satisfying summer read for those looking for a taut thriller.

July 15, 2017

Little Heaven, Lotta Horror: a review of Nick Cutter's "Little Heaven"

Little Heaven
by Nick Cutter
Simon & Schuster Canada (2017)
496 pages

A story about a cult based in the middle of the woods is a frightening enough premise, if you ask me, but Nick Cutter decided that wasn’t near enough and threw in a trio of assassins and a supernatural juggernaut for good measure in Little Heaven, his third outing through Simon & Schuster.

The novel starts with the emergence (actually, re-emergence we come to learn) of an evil spirit that takes the shape of a hideous amalgamation of wildlife, which then seeks out and abducts a little girl from her home. The imagery in this opening scene is the kind of stomach-queezing fare that Cutter made himself known for in his two previous novels, The Troop and The Deep. The girl is to be used as bait to lure three killers, one of whom the girl's father, with whom the entity has unfinished business. But before we see our three killers, Micah (the father), Ebenezer, and Minerva, head out on their return trek, we witness their pivotal meeting and their first foray into the wilds of the southwest where they encounter the doomed cult and the malevolent spirits that surround them.

The alliance between the three killers grows through what starts off as a bullet-ridden threeway dance of sorts, as each has initially been set against the other, but in their lack of success in offing each other, they settle on a truce of sorts and are eventually enlisted by a concerned woman desperate to find and save her young nephew who has been whisked away to the woods by a cult. Beyond that, they come to rely on one another as more and more odds are set against them.

Along the way, some supporting characters manage to add some much-needed flavor to what might otherwise be a one-note horror story. The ramshackle compound is populated by a cult driven by fear and frayed nerves. Amos Flesher, the leader, quickly reveals himself to the outsiders as a conniving and unstable figurehead buffeted and precariously aligned with two other hired killers who increasingly see the compound as a place to go into business for themselves. Then there's the young boy the gang has been tasked with finding, one of the only people in the camp seemingly unaffected by the influence of the cult leader inside the compounds walls or the entity lurking outside its walls. It didn't take long actually for him to become the most engaging and sympathetic character of the bunch and an easy one to root for getting out of there alive, though the book offers zero assurances such a feat is possible. And after all that brouhaha is settled, the horrors are begun anew many years later with the reckoning they all knew would come sooner or later in those woods.

At the end of the day, Little Heaven feels like a bit of a mish-mash, kind of like the creatures lurking within its pages. Cutter plays with quite a few hallmarks of the horror genre, particularly the earlier works of Stephen King, but nothing really stands out as its own and feels more like an echo of what's come before. Still, it's done with enough flair and fierceness to make it an enjoyable read and downright hair-raising at moments. I'm not sure what Cutter has up his sleave for the next horror novel, but I look forward to it and hope he can carve out more of his own style amid what this decade has shown to be a great one for horror fiction.

June 2, 2017

a guest post by Ty Arthur, author of "Light Dawning"

Following his debut sci-fi novella “Empty” from 2016, Ty Arthur returns with new full-length horror novel “Light Dawning.” Pivoting away from the emptiness of space, the book dives headlong into the waters of fantasy, but with a seriously grimdark twist. This next foray into the bleaker corners of human existence is officially slated for release on Friday, May 26th, 2017. Kindle pre-orders are now online at https://www.amazon.com/Light-Dawning-Ty-Arthur-ebook/dp/B0722FJ3ZB/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 

a guest post by Ty Arthur

After short stories set on modern day Earth and a far future space novella, for Light Dawning I wanted to shift focus yet again to a different style. Even though its absolutely a horror story, this time around I wanted to explore a fantasy world.

The fantasy genre doesn't need another epic tale where a rag tag group of unexpected heroes rises to the occasion and defeats the dark lord after discovering the magical MacGuffin. There's already enough of those. Likewise, there's already enough epics with dwarves mining for gold in their mountain homes and graceful, pointy eared elves living in tree cities. It was clear when I started writing Light Dawning that high fantasy wouldn't be a viable option for the kind of story being told.

Fantasy as a genre is a form of wish fulfillment – its right there in the name. The genre offers a glimpse of the sort of world people wish existed rather than the one that actually does. It provides the escapism of noble men and women standing fast against the tide of evil no matter the odds, of the powerful using their resources in the name of good, and of people being celebrated for breaking the rules if it they do it for the right reasons.

Who knows, maybe one day grimdark will become the equivalent of the zombie novel, with review sites having to list a disclaimer that “no, yours isn't different from all the others, please don't submit,” but for now, its a genre full of possibilities still to be explored. Light Dawning and the tale of Cestia's final hours is just the beginning of my exploration of this style, as there's no shortage of grim material to mine from the real world to transplant into a fantasy setting.

“Grimdark” then is the injection of unpleasant reality into that fantasy. Going even further than low fantasy, where the focus is primarily on humans and the things they do, grimdark reminds the audience that all is not well in the world, and that the addition of elements like magic and gods wouldn't actually make the world any better.

Fantasy is a genre ripe with possibilities for horror that aren't utilized nearly often enough. When I think of what people in the real world would do if supernatural abilities suddenly became available, the first scenarios that come to mind most definitely aren't “feed the hungry” or “provide housing for the poor” or “set the wrongfully convicted free.” There's no question that magic – were it to exist on Earth – would be used for war and enforcing religious dominance and keeping the elite wealthy few at the top of the proverbial totem pole.

With Light Dawning I've gone a step further even, with the supernatural abilities wielded by a handful of characters in this book all rooted in a cosmic horror source. Not only are they not being used for altruistic reasons, they come with the danger of insanity and extremely unexpected consequences. Magic is more a curse than a gift here, and those who choose to wield it will frequently wish that they hadn't.

Reversing all the standard fantasy tropes was a strong impetus while writing this book, and that included the priests and pantheons so typical of the style. The clergy in this book's universe are quite incorrect in assuming the gods they worship actually care about them, or that these infinite beings who entirely embody some cosmic principle would even have comprehensible desires.

After all, what does the sun really want? Who can say that they truly understand the goals of the darkness in the night sky, even if it even has goals at all? Any human desires attributed to these beings are more a reflection of the character bestowing them than on the actual “god” itself. Does a star have an opinion on how the planets orbiting closest to it are burned to a crisp while those farther away might be in just the right spot for life to flourish?

With no altruistic priests or heroes to rescue them from an invading army, the focus on Light Dawning shifts from whether the characters will save the world, but to whether its even worth saving and how people will deal with harsh reality. How do the people of Cestia respond when their gods utterly fail to save them from invasion and do nothing to ease their suffering in the intervening years? At what point does survival in a brutal occupation become less trouble than its worth? When death is all around, what will these characters make of their final days and how important are their decisions?

Ty Arthur gets to meld his passions with his work while freelancing for the likes of Metalunderground.com and GameSkinny. His debut sci-fi / horror novella “Empty” was released in early 2016, with many more dark tales still to come. Arthur writes to exorcise his demons and lives in the cold, dark north with his amazing wife Megan and infant son Gannicus Picard.

Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/Ty-Arthur/e/B0727MRVF8
Official website: https://tyarthur.wordpress.com/
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/12585427.Ty_Arthur
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ty.g.arthur

April 21, 2017

a review of Thomas Mullen's "Darktown"

There’s no such thing as the good ol’ days and reading Thomas Mullen’s Darktown is a fair reminder of that.  In this historical crime novel, America is still patting itself on the back for a job well done in World War 2, but late-40s Atlanta offers a glimpse of home-grown intolerance and corruption that must be confronted.

Following the war, Atlanta has hired its first black police officers to serve the community known as Darktown. The eight new officers aren’t exactly held in high regard by their bosses either, as not only are they relegated to one neighborhood, but are given no firearms, can make no arrests, and cannot even enter the police department itself, instead conducting their business from a gym basement.

The novel alternates between the viewpoints of two officers, Lucius Boggs and Denny Rakestraw. Boggs, as they and their partners traverse the streets of Darktown. Boggs on the one hand is a bit disillusioned to how well he’s serving his community, while Rakestraw’s naivety is challenged at the side of a grizzled, racist cop who lords over the town as if he owned it. When a black woman is murdered and the last man she was seen with is a retired white cop, things come to a head.

Through the course of the novel, Mullen really paints a picture of how precarious a tightrope it was for the black officers in enforcing the law as best they could with what little they had in resources and support. Hell, there’s a point where just a simple drive out of the city comes with the prospect of an untimely end. Not to mention the open hostility and interference on the part of especially resentful and racist white officers in the department. Plus, the characters feel very genuine and flawed, where a lesser writer might leave them gimmicky and flat.

I enjoy crime fiction, though I don’t normally gravitate towards the police procedural, but this was such an engrossing book aided by a rich historical backdrop and some tight character development, that it felt in no way like a by-the-numbers murder mystery. Atlanta leaps off the page and may be the most interesting character of them all in this novel. And if Mullen has more stories in him revolving around the Atlanta region, I’ll be sure to check them out.

March 24, 2017

A guest post by James Walley, author of "The Fathom Flies Again"

THE FATHOM FLIES AGAIN by James Walley - It's time to wake up and smell the carnage. Just as every night gives way to dawn, all dreams yield to the break of day. For Marty, that's kind of a problem. When you've fought killer clowns, sailed the seven skies, and generally laid waste to your own dreamspace, real life can be kind of a drag. At least, until your nightmares crawl through the cracks and shadows, and take a liking to your town. When the jesters come a knocking, it's time to man up. When the unmentionables under your bed come a biting, it's time to grab your trusty, pint-sized pirate compadre and lead a charge against the night terrors. What does this mean for Marty? It means the crew of The Flying Fathom are back, surfing on rainbows, swashing their buckles, and saving the world, one sleepy little town at a time. Book one of this series, The Forty First Wink, brought you a glimpse of utter, rum-swilling madness. Now The Fathom Flies Again, pushing you over the edge and chuckling at your plummeting screams, before scuttling off to find something shiny to steal. Remember, if you hear something under your bed, don't move. Don't make a sound. Draw your cutlass and think of something devilishly witty to shout, because things, my friend, are about to get all too real.

a guest post by James Walley

When I sat down to write The Forty First Wink, there were no plans for it to be part one of a trilogy. There were no plans for anything really, I just wanted to see if I could stay the course and write a novel. That lasted about four chapters, at which point I realised that there was a lot of mileage in the unfolding story I was tentatively tapping out on my newbie-author keyboard.
Fast forward a year or so. Wink is out, and happily receiving some lovely words of praise. And so it was time to stop walking, get the jetpack out and take it for a test drive.
There were so many things that drove Wink as I was writing it. My love of absurd comedy, the unlikely, rag tag group of heroes, old school horror movies and an overriding sense of fun which I wanted to be the driving force. The story does take place in a dreamscape after all, where everything is amplified, distorted and exaggerated. That was all well and good for the whimsy side, but I felt I was selling my antagonists short a little. Only a little, because come on – Demonic clowns. Put one in a tutu and make it dance a jig and it’d still be terrifying, and a little adorable.
Being a big fan of trilogies, and particularly the dark, harrowing second acts, I saw The Fathom Flies Again as an opportunity to give my Empire its time to Strike Back. I wanted to make it bigger, bleaker, and somehow more grounded in reality, and the latter is precisely where I started with this sequel. It’s all fun and games when you’re gallivanting around your own dream, even if you do have Hell’s harlequins chasing you most of the time. With Fathom, the waking world in all its grey, mundane nine-to-fivery that plays host to hordes of everyone’s worst nightmares.
I’ve always been a fan of sleepy little towns, they always seem to be the places that are set upon in horror fiction. Something about an unreal terror descending to wreak slicey mayhem on a hamlet of unsuspecting victims makes people shudder and grin in equal measure, it seems. I’ve seen and read about that very scenario so many times, and it is so ripe with possibility, that I couldn’t help but unleash my red nosed baddies on the general public, along with a few new nasties thrown in for good measure – Hey, it’s a horror homage, and who says demons can’t bring their friends on a night out?
That’s the creepy element sorted, what now? Oh yes. BIGGER.
Whilst Wink wasn’t at any stage reluctant to throw a stick of dynamite into a store selling more sticks of dynamite, I wanted Fathom to blow the roof off what had come before it. Imagine trading in your car for a monster truck, and then fixing a P.A system to the roof that perpetually thundered out The William Tell Overture, then took it for a spin through a shopping mall. Messy? Loud? Well yes, a bit, but damn that sounds like a lot of fun. I wanted the sort of triumphant fanfare for my heroes that I’d heard from the likes of Captain Chaos in The Cannonball Run, or even Sloth as he slid down the mainsail in The Goonies. Stuff that makes you want to throw a fist and everything it’s attached to into the air in appreciation of the sheer reckless bedlam you wish you could perpetrate too.
While The Forty First Wink was undoubtedly a labour of love, The Fathom Flies Again wasn’t a labour at all. It was the world and its contents that I had written about in book one, but let off the leash, and allowed to be as big, bad and bombastic as they could possibly be. Ultimately I think that’s why I had so much fun writing The Fathom Flies Again. It was as though I had laid the foundation, and now I could go ahead and build a whopping great funhouse on top of it, clowns and all.

Of course, there are worse things than clowns out there…

Hailing from the mystical isle of Great Britain, James Walley is an author who prefers his reality banana shaped.

His debut novel, The Forty First Wink, released through Ragnarok Publications in 2014 scuttles gleefully into this bracket, with a blend of humour, fantasy and the unusual.

A clutch of follow up work, both short and long (including books two and three in the Wink trilogy) are in the offing, and have a similar demented flavour.

When not writing, James is partial to a spot of singing, the odd horror movie or ten, and is a circus trained juggler.

February 1, 2017


Things are going to be pretty quiet on the blog for awhile, but hopefully there will be more reviews, interviews, and such later in the year. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, enjoy 2017 by reading a good book Or try writing something yourself if you feel compelled. Oh, maybe even, if opportunity should present itself ... punch a nazi in the face.

2017, y'all.

January 30, 2017

Good Angels, Better Beasts: an interview with Jerome Stueart, author of "The Angels of Our Better Beasts"

JEROME STUEART'S THE ANGELS OF OUR BETTER BEASTS - The Lemmings are really researching the Arctic biologists, the werewolves sing sweet Christian praise songs, and the signing gorilla just wants someone back in the cage for a minute or two. The Gryphon can fight your war for you, and there isn’t really a problem when the man you’ve been online dating turns out to be a bear, is there? No worries. Those old lions in the canyon aren’t up to something, are they? The doctors in the red coats just want to cure you of a terrible blood disease. Trust them. In the forest, the sasquatch has fallen in love with the cryptozoologist who follows him, while the god of the Brazos River courts the young, pretty Texas college students.

These fifteen illustrated stories of beasts—and the beasts we sometimes become—ask us how much influence we have over each other, to bring out our beast sides or our best sides . . . and how much control the beasts already have over us.  

So how did the ball get rolling for this collection?

I approached Brett and Sandra of ChiZine with a book proposal for the collection--all my short stories which had been published in magazines, and a brief outline of what stories I wanted to write for the collection, as well as a theme and possible audiences.  I may have gone overkill to sell it, but they liked it!  They also bought, at the same time, the rights to the novelization of my short story, "One Nation Under Gods."

When putting together a collection like this, how much of a balancing act is there in choosing which stories to include?

Well, I actually had just enough stories that could form a collection.  So they made up the bulk of it.  I wrote two others for the collection--longer stories.  I tried to sneak in a novella--but I just ran out of time, and my editor, Andrew Wilmot, told me it was probably better this way.  He thought a novella at the end of a collection might throw off the balance of stories. I agree. We did try to space out the flash fiction, the poetry on the edges, the comedic stories, give a feel to reading the collection through from start to finish.  It was a lot of fun for me to arrange the stories in patterns.      

How would you gauge your progression as a writer thus far?

I'm doing okay.  I'm proud of this collection.  I took a long time to publish, I think, because I didn't know if I was ready.  So I took writing workshops in college and learned a lot, and then took Clarion and learned a lot.   I feel late to publishing, but honestly, I'm not sure I had anything to say before now.  I took a lot of time to both find myself and explore different jobs and places--a summer on Long Island as a park ranger, ten years in the Yukon as a vaudevillian, living in a remote subarctic research station, or being a trolley conductor.  In some ways, I was doing the prep work for much of what I'm working on now.  

Your debut novel is also due to be published this year by Chizine. Is there much of a gear shift for you when it comes to story length?

My first novel is a travel novel--a journey across the US modeled on Huckleberry Finn.  It's going to feel episodic within a greater story arc, so that makes chapters into story lengths which is easier for me to think about, I think.  I tend to write long anyway---often coming in at just under 20,000 unless I have a preset wordcount cutoff.  And because it's a novel, I'm kinda letting my narrator just talk right now.... he's a talker.  So, I'm looser with the narrative and where the story could go than I would be in a short story.  I'm discovering where the novel wants to go---though I have a pretty good outline too.  I allow myself to write outside of the plotlines frequently if the narrative feels more important to go there.  

Compared to a novel, say, what do you consider to be the saving grace of the short story?

Tightness of focus and action--always keeping your attention on getting through the story--and leaving you with a clear understanding of that character at that time.  Also, a moment that lingers with you.  

You've also co-edited an anthology with Sandra Kasturi, so I'm guessing the relationship with her and ChiZine has been good so far?

Yeah, they are good people.  Brett first read my "One Nation Under Gods" story back in 2009 for Tesseracts 14.  He wrote the nicest emails, wanting it.  That kind of encouragement has just kept coming from them.  Sandra also teaches me about the business of being a writer, which is very helpful.  They've become great friends.  

Who do you count among your writing influences?  

I'm a hodgepodge of influences, I think.   I feel like the kid of Ray Bradbury + Madeleine L'Engle.  They both found a way to balance adventure, wonder, ideas and message together and they were both some of my earliest reading.  In my very religious household, I was raised on CS Lewis, Fairy Tales, the Bible and Star Trek.   As a kid, I also read  lots of mid-80s Comics, especially X-Men, Spider-man, Green Lantern, Flash, and Fantastic Four.  I read everything Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Piers Anthony wrote when I was a teen, too

And then I read some very different works:  in high school i was deeply affected by Tennyson's tragic, beautiful Idylls of the King--a whole different way of thinking about heroes, about King Arthur and Merlin and Lancelot than I'd grown up with.  In college, I read Catcher in the Rye.  Peter Straub's Shadowland.  Shakespeare. James Baldwin. Ernest Hemingway.  I liked the kinds of feeling these novels gave me when I read.  I think I've always been trying to make a reader feel something in my stories and novels.  

I loved Fitzgerald, John Irving and Alice Munro too.  Today, I'm in love with Kij Johnson and Ted Chiang and Kazuo Ishiguro.  

What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

I think, for me as a science fiction and fantasy writer, "write what you know" has always felt limiting.  I agree that one should always try to capture every experience, every "scar" as Stephen King says, to put in our fiction.  But I think if beginning writers meet up with "write what you know" they will feel boxed in to memoir, or fiction that resembles memoir (and hey, I like that stuff too! but...).  We have to use a lot more imagination--have to think about people living in space beyond what anyone knows, imagine things that have never happened.  I just think we should read that statement as "You can use everything you've experienced" and "write what you can imagine" maybe.   Those sound more encouraging. 

What kinds of stories resonate with you as a reader?

An everyperson that struggles forced into a situation where they don't know the rules.  I also like stories that make me feel something--a little sacrifice, a little difficult choice. People striving to improve their situation, even if they fail.  I like flawed human characters.  I have to feel that the author cared about the characters so that I can care too.  I'm also a sucker for stories with siblings, or families, with a dog, for mentors who do not die in the middle of novels and who guide our hero, and for puzzle stories.  I reread The Great Gatsby, Mariette in Ecstasy, Frankenstein, Watership Down.  Their characters really push to be something more in their worlds, and often they fail.  I don't know why, but that appeals to me--seeing how they push for more, or how they deal with failure.  That's inspiring.     

What other projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Well, I'm finishing up two longer stories.  One is about two sisters and their rival gods and the father the sisters fight over.  The other one I'm "cooking up" is about a chef on a starship promoted to diplomat to help negotiate reparations to a society Earth badly abused.  And the bigger project is, of course, the novel One Nation Under Gods due out in June of 2018.  Till then, I have a story coming out in the Spring in a collection from Lethe Press about a retired faun forced to teach jazz clarinet lessons to the boy who now unknowingly owns the faun's ancient powerful clarinet that can work wonders in the world. It's called "Postlude to the Afternoon of the Faun" and it will appear in Friends of Hyakinthos.  You can follow me on jeromestueart.com or on twitter @bearnabas.  If shenanigans happen--they will happen there.

January 18, 2017

The Phantom Bride of Marcellus: a guest post by Catherine Cavendish, author of "Linden Manor"

The Phantom Bride of Marcellus

My novella – Linden Manor – features the ghost of Lady Celia Fitzmichael, about whom a scary nursery rhyme was written. This has haunted my main character – Lesley Carpenter – since childhood. In it, Lady Celia is never mentioned by name. Instead, she is referred to as ‘The Scottish bride.’ And woe betide you if you laid eyes on her ‘blackened face’.
Writing this story inspired me to go in search of allegedly true reported sightings and tales of tragic brides who seem unable – or unwilling – to leave the place of their mortal death.
My quest has led me to all sorts of interesting stories. A number occur at the site of fatal road crashes. Here’s one from a very twisty road, aptly named 13 Curves (or Cedarvale Road to give it its proper name) in Marcellus, southwest of Syracuse in New York.

The road certainly twists and turns, and sixty years ago - so the story goes - a young ‘just married’ couple, without a care in the world, were driving along there on their wedding night, probably concentrating a little too much on the honeymoon to follow rather than the perils of the dark road ahead.
Rounding one of the bends, the car spun out of control, off the road and plunged into a nearby creek. The couple were killed instantly. What followed has been reported in many ways by many people, most of whom were previously unaware of any such sightings.
Some people report seeing a ghostly bride, covered in blood and carrying a glowing orange lantern. Others say her eyes glow as she wanders along the road, apparently searching for something or someone. Others have reported seeing the apparition standing on one of the hills along the road. At times she is reported as behaving in a reckless fashion, leaping out at unsuspecting cars and causing their drivers to swerve out of control and crash their vehicles.

She has also been reported causing accidents by suddenly manifesting herself in the driver’s rear view mirror, apparently sitting in the back seat of their cars, dressed in white, spattered with blood. When they turn around, she has gone. A variation on the story says that, in fact, she wasn’t killed that day – only her groom was. She died much later and returns to this spot, searching for her long dead husband. A common theory is that she died on Friday 13th and only returns on this date.
Whatever the truth of this story, the road is undeniably spooky at night. Its many curves require due diligence when negotiating them. This is not a road to lose concentration on, so maybe the Phantom Bride of Marcellus comes back to warn the unwary to take care, or risk suffering her fate.

Now, here’s a flavour of Linden Manor:
Have you ever been so scared your soul left your body? 

All her life, Lesley Carpenter has been haunted by a gruesome nursery rhyme—“The Scottish Bride”—sung to her by her great grandmother. To find out more about its origins, Lesley visits the mysterious Isobel Warrender, the current hereditary owner of Linden Manor, a grand house with centuries of murky history surrounding it. 

But her visit transforms into a nightmare when Lesley sees the ghost of the Scottish Bride herself. A sight that, according to the rhyme, means certain death. The secrets of the house slowly reveal themselves to Lesley - terrible secrets of murder, evil and a curse that soaks the very earth on which Linden Manor now stands. But Linden Manor has saved its most chilling secret for last. 

Linden Manor has just been reissued by Crossroad Press and is available from:
Other books by Catherine Cavendish include:

And are currently available – or soon will be – from:

Catherine Cavendish lives with a long-suffering husband and ‘trainee’ black cat in North Wales. Her home is in a building dating back to the mid-18th century, which is haunted by a friendly ghost, who announces her presence by footsteps, switching lights on and strange phenomena involving the washing machine and the TV. Cat has written a number of published horror novellas, short stories, and novels, frequently reflecting her twin loves of history and horror and often containing more than a dash of the dark and Gothic. When not slaving over a hot computer, she enjoys wandering around Neolithic stone circles and visiting old haunted houses.
You can connect with her here:

January 16, 2017

The Rhodes Less Traveled: an interview with J. Kent Messum, author of "Husk"

From award-winning author J. Kent Messum, a serial killer thriller for fans of The Straw Men and The Shining Girls.


For a lucky few, death is merely an inconvenience. With the help of technology the mind can survive long after a body has been laid to rest. This afterlife, however, is far from paradise...


Rhodes is a 'Husk'. It's an illegal, controversial and highly lucrative job - renting out control of his body and mind to the highest bidder. It's a sure way to gain a better life, but some clients go too far. Sometimes, he wakes up with scars.


Then the visions start - terrible sights that haunt his waking hours. They could be dreams, or they could be something far worse - they just might be memories ...

What was the impetus behind Husk?

I think writing Husk was the next logical step for me. My first novel 'Bait' was a gritty piece of pulp(ish) fiction; a fast, nasty little read about stranded heroin addicts. For my second novel I wanted to write something a bit longer that was more intricate and had more depth. Basically, I wanted to better my storytelling on all fronts. Husk was a big idea; speculative fiction that raised a lot of difficult questions and covered a lot of ground. The concept alone spurned me on as I found it increasingly captivating the more I worked on it.

How intensive does the research process get for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

At times the research process gets slow and heavy because I strive to make my stories airtight. I've got a certain inventiveness, which is an asset, but I have to be careful not to slip into simply 'making stuff up' for the sake of the story. Whatever you create fiction, it needs to be based in reality for readers to receive it well. Even the fantastical still has to be supported in ways that are believable and accessible.

The internet, of course, is a godsend for research. But among all that easily accessible information is a lot of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news as well. I've learned not take anything at face value. Be discerning and constantly cross-reference your research. There's plenty of false or incomplete data paraded as fact that can make you look like a fool later if you're not careful.

Along with that research, was there anything that stood out as particularly intriguing but couldn't find a place for it in your novel?

There is always the temptation to explore a lot of different avenues in a novel. Unfortunately, there is also a risk of wandering too far from the story. Writers are in constant danger of getting lost, and I'm no exception. You have to pick your path and plan your route. I always have too many ideas that I want to put in a book, but it really depends on whether the story is the right vehicle for them. A lot of cool stuff eventually ends up on the cutting room floor because they're not the right fit contextually.

Was it tricky writing a near-future novel, as far as some aspect of it becoming dated before it's actually published?

It was definitely was. I allowed myself some wiggle room by not actually stating what date the story takes place in (it could be ten years from now, or it could be twenty-five). However, I'm one of those people that believe the more things change the more they stay the same. So, the trick was to strike a balance; create a fictional near-future that was sci-fi enough, while at the same time convincing readers this world could already be here.

With this being your sophomore novel, did you feel any pressure following up your debut novel, Bait?

My intention is to constantly better and better work, so there's always a bit of pressure personally to outdo myself. Exterior pressures are more prevalent though. The publishing game is growing increasingly corporate; book sales and shareholder satisfaction becoming the only priorities, often leaving authors out in the cold. The business is constantly riding on the coattails of trends and fads too. For instance, there's pressure on authors to make trilogies and quadrilogies (even a series that continues indefinitely) all the time now. I'm not that kind of author. My ideas are largely one-offs and I prefer the idea of a good solid stand-alone novel over these series featuring the same characters over and over again.

And there is plenty of pressure to copy what's currently popular. Honestly, the big joke among authors right now is: If you want your book to have a better chance at success, simply put the word 'Girl', 'Bone', or 'Dark' in the title. I think I'll just call my next novel "The Girl Who Got Boned In The Dark".

Who do you count among your writing influences?

I've got a small and selective list of authors I admire and try to emulate. They are, in no particular order, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, Thom Jones, Dennis Johnson, Stewart O'Nan, Dennis Lehane, Chuck Palahniuk, and Craig Davidson.

How much emphasis do you place on setting as character?

Probably not as much as other authors. Personally, I see setting as the canvas used in the creation, maybe even the glue that holds a good story in place. It's largely background to me, a support structure that needs to hold the weight of every page, though that doesn't mean its importance is diminished in the slightest.

What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

"Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life" is a piece of advice I can't stand. There's this current belief that "work" is some kind of dirty word, that pursuing your passion should feel effortless and enjoyable all the time. I believe that's total and utter crap. Even if you love something, making progress with it should still feel like hard work. Blood, sweat, and tears produces the best art in my opinion.

For specific 'writing' advice, I'm sick of hearing about the importance of maintaining a proper writing schedule. Although it's important to clock in the hours, I don't think a regimented schedule is necessary. There is no 'correct method'. Do whatever works for you. Personally, I'm a night owl and often stay up all night to write. Don't think you have to adhere to a system or strategy that someone else deems necessary.

What kinds of stories resonate with you as a reader?

I like books with no bullshit. Pacey, compelling storytelling with few words wasted really gets my attention. Generally, I lean toward the dark and gritty, authors who don't shy away from tackling the hard stuff. I'm quite a fan of war stories and any fiction that pushes the envelope. There's a real lack of originality in the majority of publishing these days, and I'm always seeking out that which is new and interesting.

What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

I'm currently wrapping up work on my third and fourth novels. They're both stand-alone books in the thriller genre, but are poles apart in subject matter. One deals with a newly discovered species that becomes an unexpected addiction in Los Angeles, and the other is about a young boy's disturbing relationship with a haunted tree. Hopefully one of them will be out later this year with the other soon to follow. I keep folks posted on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter.


January 13, 2017

Dream a Little Dream: an interview with Oliver Langmead, author of "Metronome"

About METRONOME by Oliver Langmead:
'You and I, we wear our wounds. I wear my scars, you wear your tattoos, and we don't forget who we are.'

It is for the entities known as Sleepwalkers to cross the doors between dreams, and hunt the nightmares that haunt sleeping minds. Theirs is a world of impossible vistas, where reason is banished and only the imagination holds sway: the connected worlds that all sleeping minds inhabit, and the doors that lead between.

But tonight, one Sleepwalker has gone rogue. Abandoning her sworn oath to protect the dreamscapes, she has devoted herself to another cause, threatening to unleash a nightmare older than man. The only chance of stopping her lies with a man named Manderlay. Once a feted musician, William Manderlay is living his twilight years in an Edinburgh care home, riddled with arthritis and filled with a longing for his youth, for the open seas, and for the lost use of his hands and the violin he has always treasured.

For too long now, Manderlay's nights have been coloured by dark, corrupted dreams: dreams of leprous men in landscapes plucked from his memory, of dark figures seeking him on city streets. His comrades in the retirement home believe Manderlay is giving in to age and senility - but the truth is much worse. For in dreams, maps are made from music – and it just might be that one of William Manderlay's forgotten compositions holds the key to unleashing the nightmare that holds the world of dreams in balance. The Sleepwalkers are zoning in on him. He might be their saviour, or his music might be their damnation...

From the acclaimed author of Dark Star comes a literary fantasy like no other.

What was the impetus behind Metronome?

My first published book, Dark Star, was both literally and figuratively dark. It was defined by those few things my protagonist could actually see, and those things, though startling, were often bleak. It wasn't a happy book, and it's difficult to call it colourful. I took a step back after finishing it, and thought about where to go next. I've never been too fond of authors who write the same book over and over again (with exceptions – trilogies and series, for instance: anywhere the story needs multiple books to work), and I felt like going somewhere completely different. In that way, Metronome is a burst of colour. I wanted to write a journey instead of a procedural, so it ended up being an odyssey, and I wanted to really test the limits of my imagination, so it ended up being fantasy instead of science fiction. If Dark Star is a rain cloud, then Metronome is a rainbow.

What was it about this book, if anything, that you approached differently from your previous work?
Metronome is barely similar to Dark Star. They're both in first person, and I like to think that they're both quite visual books, but it's there that the similarities end. Dark Star was in verse, and Metronome is in prose. Dark Star was in American English, and Metronome is in British English. Virgil, the protagonist of Dark Star, is a celebrated young detective serving a law enforcement agency in a city engulfed by perpetual darkness, and Manderlay, the protagonist of Metronome, is an elderly man with a long life behind him, living in an Edinburgh care home and beset by terrible dreams. As a reader, I want to be taken to places that I've never been before, and the same can be said for my writing.
Who do you count among your writing influences?

As a writer, I tend to wear my influences on my sleeve. Metronome, I think, is clearly a celebration of the contemporary fantasy novel, as spearheaded by such brilliant writers as China Miéville and Neil Gaiman. But it also takes its lineage from the imagination of Mark Twain (in particular, the controversial The Mysterious Stranger), and the richly visual writing of Mervyn Peak, and even classical texts, like John Milton's Paradise Lost. There's definitely a bit of Philip Pullman in there, as well, and even a little Bret Easton Ellis if you squint.

Beyond Metronome, I tend to read as much as I can of pretty much everything. Variety is key. One of my fellow authors with Unsung Stories, the remarkable Verity Holloway, recently said that an author should strive to read books that they don't want to read – to look outside the genres their work fits into – and I can't agree enough. I'm hugely into Cormac McCarthy and the great American novel, and I've recently been reading a lot of twentieth century feminist writers – enjoying taking a tour of the likes of Shirley Jackson, who is completely superb, and even Virginia Woolf, who I once found impenetrable to read, but am now beginning to fall in love with.

Some folks for whatever reason turn their nose up at science fiction. What do you consider to be its saving grace?
I'm glad to say that attitudes towards books that might be considered genre fiction – science fiction and fantasy included – are beginning to change, at least in the academic sense. I have the privilege of being enrolled in the University of Glasgow's Fantasy masters, the only one of its kind in the world, now in its second year, and the field that me and my fellow students are studying feels relatively untouched by literary critics. Certainly, books at the edge of fantasy and science fiction – or those that have the good fortune to be considered primarily as works of literature – have been explored. Look, for instance, at Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, one of the most important Russian novels of the twentieth century, which happens to be fantasy. Or at Virgina Woolf's Orlando – no doubt an important modernist novel, but also a work of fantasy. It feels as if we're working from the outside in, studying those well-explored works of literary fantasy and science fiction first simply because an extensive critical framework already exists, and working our way to those equally as celebrated, yet academically ignored texts yet to be acknowledged as works of literature. The Harry Potter series, for instance – doesn't it deserve academic acknowledgement? In some small way, it feels like we few Fantasy students are pioneers, bravely traversing undiscovered countries, and from that point of view, the future feels bright. Change is coming.
Otherwise, the answer is simple. Some people will read only science fiction, and some people will only read crime thrillers, and some people will only read books considered to be literary. That's just a matter of taste, and I don't think it'll change any time soon.
What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

The one piece of advice that really bothers me is “write what you know.” I'm sure it's something that works for some people, don't get me wrong. Take Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, with his My Struggle series. He has written so many books about his own life, often in excruciating detail, and is showing no signs of stopping. He sells millions of copies of his books, so it's not like he lacks readers, either. But... it doesn't work for me, both as a reader and a writer.

The problem, I think, comes down to boredom. If you're writing about something you don't know – say, exploring a new, fantastic kingdom you came up with, or a new planet, or anything like that – then your excitement as you explore comes through in your writing. I long for that spark, of discovering the undiscovered, and when I truly capture it, or feel it coming through the page of a book I'm reading, then it's like no other feeling in the world. But if I write about something I know - Law, for instance (I have a degree in it I plan on never using) - then I find myself being bored by it. There's nothing new there for me to find, or for anybody else to find. There's just a bunch of dull moments I already know very well, often captured in excruciating detail that doesn't feel exciting to me, and I'm sure wouldn't feel exciting to anyone else either.

What kinds of stories resonate with you as a reader?

I like reading stories that take me somewhere I've never been before. That doesn't necessarily mean going very far – just to the next town over, or showing me something from a different point of view – but I am all about escapism in some form or another. Certainly, I appreciate language. If your prose is excellent, then it should be acknowledged and celebrated as such. But if I'm not going anywhere new, then I seem to lose interest. A great example of this is with David Foster Wallace's Eternal Jest. When I first got stuck into it, I was excited. The world he'd created was rich and intricate, and his language was something special. But then... it never really got going anywhere. It stayed in the same place, with the same characters, not doing very much. And while his prose remained brilliant, I simply lost interest and went in search of a book that could take me somewhere new instead.

How has the relationship with your publisher been so far?

Unsung have been nothing short of brilliant to work with. They've responded to both the books I've submitted to them with enthusiasm, and I'm happy to say that that enthusiasm remains, even for Dark Star, which was published nearly two years ago now. They're doing something that not a lot of publishers are doing these days – namely, taking chances on books that the public at large, and a lot of editors, wouldn't usually be brave enough to approach. Dark Star was a poem the length of a book, and Metronome is a fantasy odyssey whose protagonist is over the age of eighty, and not only have Unsung been bold enough to publish them, but to publish them cleverly and thoughtfully – finding ways to bring books that mainstream editors would never dare to put in front of their marketing teams to mainstream audiences and niche audiences alike.

Is theme something you have in mind when your writing the story, or is that something that kinds of reveals itself later in the process?
It's difficult to write a book using a strict plan. Books are more like trees – you start with the acorn of an idea, and grow it, and it doesn't stop growing until it's finally made it past all the editors and copy editors and found its way to the shelves of bookshops and the minds of readers, where it finds its final form. Themes are pretty similar. You can go in with a plan for which themes are going to emerge in your writing, but, so far as I've found, you're always going to end up being surprised by what actually comes out. And even then, you, as an author, might not find them all. Readers discover new themes all the time. One of Metronome's first reviews read the book in a way that neither me or my editors had considered, and it was wonderful. It's not like there's any wrong way to read a book: everybody's interpretations are equally as legitimate (at least, I don't consider myself the ultimate authority on how my books should be read. I can only tell you what I meant).
What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Do you ever get those times in your life where a million opportunities and events come up at once after a long period of calm? I'm currently going through one of those times, and it comes with the irritating caveat of being able to talk about exactly none of it. Of course, I'm writing. I can say that much! I'm writing and writing and writing, and there is a chance that some of it may find its way to publication. The best place to keep up with that is: oliverlangmead.com

January 3, 2017

Ten books published in 2016 still on my TBR pile that I REALLY need to read in 2017

While I did manage to put out a list of the books I read and enjoyed this past year, there are still so many books that came out in 2016 that are sitting on my to-be-read pile that could've just as easily wound up on that list had I read them.  One of these days I'm gonna learn to speed read, so I have half a chance of reading ALL of the books on my TBR pile.

So I thought I would make another list to give a shout-out to a few of the books sitting on my TBR pile that I really should've read in 2016, but just let fall to the wayside for some ungodly reason. Some of these books I've seen end up on a lot of people's year-end lists, and the others I'm kind of surprised haven't shown up on more lists because all of the authors listed below are super-talented and deserve as many eyeballs on their books as possible.

And they are ...

Company Town by Madeline Ashby - This one caught my attention at first because it is set in the Maritimes region, my stomping grounds. What hooked me was that it's a near future, murder mystery, sci-fi thriller set on a city-sized oil rig. Phwah! Yes, please.

Savages by Greg F. Gifune - Everything of Greg's I've read so far has been quiet and contemplative as far as the horror goes, so this balls-to-the-wall, lost-at-sea slasher is not something I was expecting from him, but you can be damn sure I'll devour it.

Children of the Dark by Jonathan Janz - I have fallen behind in keeping up with Janz's work, which is shameful on my part because he gets better with each book he puts out, and by the sounds of it this coming-of-age cryptid tale is his best novel yet.

The Rib From Which I Remake the World by Ed Kurtz - A bit of black magic noir set during World War Two? I'm salivating already. This book may be on more year-end lists than any other I'm highlighting here, and with good reason I reckon, in that Ed is a helluva writer.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle - Playing in Lovecraft's sandbox can be fun, but I think readers enjoy it even more when Lovecraft's---hmmm--problematic worldview can be confronted or even subverted by authors. And it sounds like LaValle did a great job of that with this novella.

Stranded by Bracken MacLeod - I had to add this one to my bookshelves when I heard "in the spirit of John Carpenter's The Thing" among the myriad of advance praise it received. A shipwreck thriller set in the arctic with a Twilight Zone caliber curveball thrown in? Sounds like perfect reading for this winter.

The Train Derails in Boston by Jessica McHugh - I'm a fan of haunted house stories, but I ain't of a haunted house story quite like this one. I haven't read a McHugh novel yet, and I think this one is the perfect place to start.

The Family Plot by Cherie Priest - Speaking of haunted houses, here's another one that caught my eye in the fall, with a salvage crew heading out to an old property that's due to be demolished only to find that the place isn't all that dilapidated and isn't all that abandoned. Eep.

Rocks Fall Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar - This one came out in the summer and since then I haven't heard too much talk about it, which is too bad because the idea of a supernaturally endowed family being the one thing keeping calamity at bay and using that to exploit the townspeople sounds so devilish.

Holy Death by Anthony Neil Smith - This is the fourth and latest installment in Smith's Billy Lafitte series. I'll need to catch up in this series, but when Holy Death came out there was no hesitation in buying it, since Smith is a helluva noir writer and Lafitte is a helluva anti-hero.