Reviews

Short Story Review: NEITHER FRUIT NOR FLESH, by R.J. Barker

 

Some time ago a fellow blogger mentioned the FANTASY HIVE site, a place for all things related to speculative fiction in its many forms: news about upcoming books, movies and tv shows, interviews with authors, and so on.  Amid such bounty, it stood to reason that some short stories would find their place for our enjoyment, and the very first of these stories to be published on Fantasy Hive was Neither Fruit Nor Flesh, by R.J. Barker, author of the highly acclaimed Age of Assassins, one of the best debut novels of 2017.

Unexpectedly, it was not a fantasy-themed story – which shows how wrong we are when we believe an author could possess only one kind of ‘voice’ in their narrative set of skills: Neither Fruit Nor Flesh starts as a mainstream tale, and then step by step it slides seamlessly into horror.   The unnamed main character, a young woman slightly obsessed with her appearance and even more with cleanliness and healthy living, has an accident while she’s out running: her head turns at a sudden noise, she collides with some hedge plant on her path and a thorn pierces her face near one eye.

According to the doctors who treat her, there was no damage and once the eyepatch covering the injury will come off, she will be as good as new, but she starts to obsess about the extraneous material – the filthy material – covering the thorn that might have entered her body, contaminating its carefully maintained health.  What starts at this point seems to be a journey into hell fueled by a hygiene-fixated frame of mind, one that colors the young woman’s awareness so much that it ends up affecting her perceptions of herself and the world she lives in.

That is, until the story takes a very, very unexpected turn, one that ends in a scene that is as startling as it is horrifying, despite the equally weird build-up until that moment.  Horrifying and very well done.

My thanks to Fantasy Hive for this welcome gift, that I’m sure will be only the first of many.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: RED LIGHTS, AND RAIN, by Gareth L. Powell

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

This turned out to be a very strange story – and I mean ‘strange’ in a very positive way, of course – one that started as something with a somber mood: the opening brings us to a small pub in the Red Lights district of Amsterdam, where a woman is waiting for someone.  The description of the rainy night and the people moving past the pub’s windows on their various errands puts the background into sharp focus and  it quickly drew me in, thanks to what I like to call “cinematic quality” in writing.

Quite soon, though, the story’s atmosphere changes, and that happens when the waiting woman fingers the gun in her pocket – a gun that’s fifty years more advanced than anything else in this time zone” – and the man she’s waiting for appears.  She’s there to kill him, and he’s aware of the fact.

I’m not going to tell you more about Red Lights, and Rain, because it’s the kind of story that begs to be read with no foreknowledge: the only thing I feel comfortable sharing is the consideration underlying the narrative – what is a monster?  Is it the creature whose only motivation is to kill, the one that is driven to spill innocent blood, or is it the one that acted as creator and sent it on the path of destruction?   In the end I found myself echoing the words of the young man managing the pub, “you are a monster”. Indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: STILLHOUSE LAKE, by Rachel Caine

Sometimes it’s good to expand beyond one’s reading preferences, if nothing else to sample the skills of a known author in a different genre: it’s the case of Rachel Caine, whose Great Library books I quite liked and who choose to branch off into thrillers with Stillhouse Lake.  This is a genre I used to read extensively once upon a time, but have not visited for quite a while, and this novel helped in reminding me that you don’t need supernatural elements like ghosts, demons or vampires – just to quote a few – to instill horror in a reader: there are instances where plain, old human evil is more than enough.  If not downright worse.

Gina Royal believed she had the perfect life: a loving husband, two wonderful children, a good house and no financial problems. That is, until a freak car crash revealed the horror behind the façade: what went on in the garage where her husband Mel had built his off-limits-to-everyone workshop had nothing to do with do-it-yourself projects and everything to do with the abduction, torture and murder of a number of young women.  Arrested and tried as an accessory to Mel’s foul deeds, Gina was later found innocent by the law but not by the public opinion, so she was forced to change her name and try to stay ahead of the haters, always on the move, with the protection of her children as her paramount goal.

The titular Stillhouse Lake is a remote rural location where Gina – now Gwen Proctor, the latest in her assumed identities – seems to have found a modicum of stability for herself and her teenaged kids, fourteen-year-old Lanny and eleven-year-old Connor.  The years have marked them all deeply: apart from the aftermath of what they have called The Event that destroyed their entire world, their rootless life and the constant need to look over their shoulder, leaving as light a footprint as possible, have severely hindered the children’s normal growth.  Just imagine what it might mean for a modern teenager to have to limit access to the internet, or to a smartphone’s functions, not to mention the need to keep guarding one’s words so as to avoid dangerous slips of the tongue: Lanny and Connor had to learn to cope with their lack of friends and of a peer group to share experiences with.

Still, Gwen’s family seems to have finally found a sort of balance, a sense of home they have been missing in recent years, when the past comes crashing back on them with a vengeance: faced with the contrasting need of picking up stakes once again, or standing her ground and fighting for the right to have a normal life, Gwen will need to tap all her newfound confidence and courage if she wants to defeat old ghosts and provide as normal a future as possible for Lanny and Connor.

As I was saying, human cruelty easily provides more material for scary plots than your run-of-the-mill critter ever could: in this case we are offered a closer look on a kind of victim that’s frequently ignored when dealing with serial killers – the perpetrator’s close relatives.  Once a serial offender is discovered, there’s a question the general public can’t help asking: how could their immediate family not be aware of what was going on?  How could they not see the signs?  Gina/Gwen is a case in point: her husband Mel brought his victims to the family’s garage, where he proceeded to slowly torture and then kill them, and public opinion finds it hard to believe that she was unaware of it all. Yet, seeing things from her perspective, it’s easy to understand the hows and whys of such… selective blindness: for instance, Mel was outwardly the model husband and father, and only a few enlightening flashbacks show how his mask did slip now and then, and how a woman like Gina – one with a yearning to feel loved and needed – might have rationalized those episodes and closed her eyes to the deeper, darker implications of Mel’s behavior.  Moreover, a personality like Gina’s would be the perfect clay in the hands of such a skilled manipulator like Mel, whose depths of depravity surface only from the letters he sends her from the prison, messages where he reveals his true face with the abandon of someone who feels finally free from the need to hide the dominant side of their nature.

Learning the truth is both traumatizing and liberating: as we meet Gwen for the first time, she’s in a shooting range for the final stages of obtaining a handgun permit and we see clearly how she’s determined to take her life into her own hands, to be the one who makes the choices: as she says at some point, that trauma made her stronger and she will not go back to being Gina, weak and easily controlled Gina, any longer.

Another kind of darkness in this story comes from the people who refuse to let Gwen and her children rebuild their life, hunting and haunting them with the sins of the monster who shared their home: I’m not talking about the victims’ relatives, whose pain and rage is understandable but who very rarely transform their desire for revenge into concrete actions, but rather those ghouls who enjoy delving into bloody crimes, either by a form of morbid fascination or an unexpressed desire to emulate the killer (and from where I stand, the border between the two is frightfully thin…).  In Stillhouse Lake, these people fill message boards with their plans of exacting revenge for Mel’s crimes on his children, often graphically exemplifying such dreadful ideas, and not even realizing that their purported need for justice is indistinguishable from a serial killer modus operandi.  The anonymity the Internet offers to these individuals, the possibility to express the foulest of thoughts with impunity, is something we can observe daily with various degrees of intensity, and it offers a gloomy commentary on the general status of the human soul…

Besides these interesting psychological observations, Stillhouse Lake is an intense, gripping story that makes for a compulsive reading and ends with surprise development that will carry the story into the next book with undiminished momentum.  No one could ask for more in a suspense-filled novel.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: TRAVELERS, by Rich Larson

 

This is a mix between a thriller and a science fiction story and one that reminded me strongly of the recent movie Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, to the point that I wondered if this short work had been used as a template for the movie script. The premise is quite similar, a sleeper ship and a woman waking up from suspended animation (here called ‘torpor’) to discover that the automated systems brought her out of sleep because of health concerns. When she checks the ship’s status she finds out that their destination is still 32 years away, and that she can’t access the medbay, either to check on her status or to attempt a return to hibernation, but also that she’s not alone: a man has built a nest of blankets in an airlock and he’s playing guitar.

The differences with the movie I mentioned start from here (including the fact that the ship is not on a pleasure cruise, but is rather carrying survivor from an unspecified event), and it’s worth exploring them, particularly where morals are concerned: in the movie, the decision of waking up another passenger, though it was a step not taken lightly, was ultimately condoned. The young woman’s rage about seeing her life and plans shattered because of a selfish act – and not matter the mitigating reasons, it was a selfish act – all but disappear when shared danger and mutual attraction manage to change her mind. This was of course a predictable outcome, because Hollywood rules would not have allowed anything else, but in this short story things are quite different: more realistic, for starters, far darker and much more terrifying.

Don’t expect friendly robot bartenders dispensing alcoholic beverages and easy wisdom, nor good-looking characters destined to a happy-ever-after: this is far closer to the truth of the given premise, and far more gruesome…

But worth a look…

You can read the story online here

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: INTO THE DROWNING DEEP (Rolling in the Deep #1), by Mira Grant

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Readers of this blog know by now that I’m a great fan of author Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant, so it would come as no surprise that I was eager to see what she would do with this new facet of her vast repertoire of creatures that goes from fae and changelings to zombies and onwards to various other fascinating and/or scary beings.  If curiosity was my prime motivator, I was on the other hand slightly worried that this novel might retrace the steps of its prequel novella Rolling in the Deep, and therefore offer little in the way of story or characterization: this being Mira Grant, however, I should not have been concerned, because she not only expanded on the core concept of that first foray into mermaid territory, but she also gave us a gripping, breath-stopping story that kept me on edge until the very end.

Several years before the start of Into the Drowning Deep, the entertainment network Imagine had financed an expedition to the Mariana Trench in search of mermaids, following once more the sensationalist path of Imagine’s usual programming. A small group of scientists and entertainment people had embarked on the Atargatis with the goal of proving the existence of these mythical creatures, and in the end they did find what they were looking for: reality, however turned out to be much worse than any fancy concept, and the ship was later recovered, adrift and empty, save for a few snippets of footage that showed something terrible and incredible – so incredible that it was labelled as a hoax.

As the story starts, Imagine decides to mount a second, more well-equipped expedition, with the goal of proving the truth of that much-reviled footage and to recover the network’s credibility. For a number of the new expedition’s members, however, the voyage will be a way of putting to rest the ghosts of friends or loved ones lost with the Atargatis, or to find revenge for their untimely death.  This is the case for scientist Victoria “Tory” Stewart, whose sister Anne was the media face of that fateful voyage, while Doctor Jillian Toth – who choose at the last moment not to join the previous expedition – wants to find definitive proof of the mermaids’ existence and somehow assuage her guilt over the tragedy that befell the unlucky ship.  Aboard the Melusine, a state of the art sailing vessel equipped with the latest in scientific research and protection against eventual attacks, Imagine has collected various teams of scientist, a group of security guards for their safety, and a husband-and-wife team of professional hunters, creating a quite volatile mix of personalities that promises from the start to make this venture into the deep ocean a difficult one, even without the dangers posed by the creatures in the found footage.

Thanks to my knowledge of what happened aboard the Atargatis, my sense of impending doom started immediately and was not improved by some of the details offered now and then in an almost off-hand manner, like the information about the shielding plates installed to protect Melusine’s passengers from external attacks, shields that fail the test runs effected by the crew.  Being aware of what was coming made the constant bickering between the scientists – competing with each other for visibility and fame – and the difficult relations between them and the hunters, look even more petty and superficial: in this respect Mira Grant gives us a wide range of personalities from both sides of the spectrum, their interactions contributing to the growing feel of disaster on the make that is the backbone of this novel.  And so we get Olivia, the new poster-girl for Imagine, who presents an airy, happy-go-lucky face to the world while hiding both profound insecurities and some unexpected depths of courage that will surface in the direst moments; or Luis, Tory’s friend and science partner, whose support and friendship toward Victoria are indeed a bright light in the overall darkness of the story; or again the abrasive manners of Dr. Toth, who uses her scientific detachment and practical approach as a cover for what looks like a sort of death wish.

The book offers an interesting commentary on humanity as well, on our approach to the strange and uncanny: once the clips from the Atargatis’ tragedy are released, the public at large refuses to believe such evidence, calling it a hoax and blaming the entertainment network for the death of passengers and crew. What does this say about modern audiences, used to special effects and world-wide media coverage? Probably that we have become accustomed to it all and have somehow lost our sense of wonder – and Grant seems to warn us that turning a deaf ear on legends might in the end be our downfall, because nature still has many ways in which to surprise us. Or worse.

The mermaids are indeed the central focus here, not simply a bloody incident, since the author has created for them a whole background that’s in equal parts fascinating and terrifying: where they looked like mindless predators in Rolling in the Deep, here they are shown as part of a complex society, one shaped by the environment in which they live and by the constant hunger that drives their actions. In popular lore mermaids have always been pictured as half fish, half alluring woman, their perceived beauty and lovely songs able to draw unwary sailors to a watery grave; here they appear as nightmarish monsters whose true appearance has been glossed over by a myth that painted them as seductive, conveniently forgetting the “surprisingly sensual mouth brimming with needled teeth”, or the fact that their tantalizing song was nothing else but a very evolved form of mimicry, used to lure the unsuspecting prey.  That was to me the most horrifying side of these creatures, not the fact that they can successfully assault a modern ship and kill its occupants with surprising ease, nor the fact that they feed on humans just as they feed on fish, but that they can imitate a person’s voice, or any noise, with uncanny accuracy, knowing it will bait the trap they are so efficient in laying.

Worse still, the nightmare does not seem to end here, because Into the Rolling Deep leaves a great deal of hanging threads and an open door for a sequel: there is a revelation toward the end that there might be something ever more terrifying lying in wait in the depths of the ocean, something barely perceived but still mind-shattering enough to prompt a character into an almost Lovecraftian exclamation: “The light, the light, oh God the light!”.  Whatever that might be, I look forward to discovering it with the next book(s) in the series, while I will try to remember the warning Mira Grant issues at the end of her Acknowledgements section:

“Watch out for the water. You never know what might be down there”.

I guess I will take my next vacation on very dry land…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Stories Review: THE LIVING DEAD 2 Sampler, edited by John Joseph Adams

The zombie theme has never been more actual as it is these days, with literature and both screens – the big and the small one – often employing it for stories, although it’s difficult to find tales that try to look beyond the far-too-easy shock of blood and gore, focusing rather on the psychology of characters and their reaction to the apocalypse they are desperately trying to survive.   Recently I discovered this BAEN FREE LIBRARY book showcasing some of the stories contained in one of two larger anthologies dedicated to the living dead, and decided to take a look: some of the offerings were quite weird – like the one that sees events from the point of view of an Amish community (“Rural Dead” by Bret Hammond), or the one whose premise is that all of humanity dies and wakes up as zombies, and follows the plight of a family as they try to get on with their non-lives as much as they can (“Who We Used to Be” by David Moody) – but a few truly left their mark on my imagination, my favorites being the two I’ve chosen to showcase in this review.

The reason they appealed to me is that in both instances we can still see the humanity in these living dead, because, as the editor reminds us in the preface, zombies might become our enemies, but they are “enemy that used to be us, that we can become at any time”, and as such they should not be only something to fear.

FLOTSAM & JETSAM by Carrie Ryan (the author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, a book I’ve often seen mentioned and been curious about) deals with the beginning of the zombie plague, and as such piqued my interest, since I find origin tales much more fascinating than the actual aftermath, probably because of the early imprinting due to Stephen King’s The Stand.     In the editor’s preface to the story, we learn that Ryan wanted to show the outbreak from an enclosed point of view, a claustrophobic one I’m tempted to say, so that from the initial idea of a plane being constantly turned away from airports, the author moved to a lifeboat from a cruise ship, and the two survivors in it.

We are given to understand that the zombie plague hit as the two young men were on a cruise, together with friends, and that when all hell broke loose they found their way on the raft, which at the beginning of the story is still drifting near the ship, with the fugitives hoping against hope that the carnage going on aboard the ship might be brought under control.   As the days go on, dwindling supplies and increasing despair take their toll on the two men, particularly because one of them was bitten during the mad dash toward safety, and he acknowledges – after an understandable period of denial – that he will turn and become a danger to his friend.

The story is focused on hope, and on the way it can be a two-edged sword: what made it stand out from the other offerings was the stark, lucid observation of the characters’ feelings and reactions, and particularly of the way in which the initial aversion, fueled by the close quarters, turns into something quite different. It’s not a happy story, or one with a happy ending, either, but it’s very much worth reading.

My Rating:  

THE DAYS OF FLAMING MOTORCYCLES by Catherynne M. Valente, besides being an amazingly unexpected story, represents my first sample of this author’s writing and makes me understand why so many fellow bloggers speak so highly of her works.     In the author’s own words, the idea of this story came from the notion of the “quiet apocalypse”, not so much the raging inferno that seems to be mandatory in this kind of account, but rather “an apocalypse you just have to live through and find a way to co-exist with”.

The main (and only, to say the truth) character here is Caitlin Zielinski, a young woman living in deserted Augusta, Maine, a virtual ghost town where only the zombies remain: she has chosen to stay because of her zombified father, a man who was, when alive, violent and irascible, and now seems only a pitiable creature, one that still dwells in the house they shared and tries, with mournful moaning that seems more lament than menace, to call out the name of his daughter, as a last thread of the humanity he doesn’t want to let go of.

Valente’s zombies are indeed a different breed: they try to attack the living, of course, but one can escape them with sufficient nimbleness and speed – what differentiates these living dead from the more widely known variety is the spark of humanity that seems to be still present in them, compelling them to remain close to the places they frequented when alive, and even showing a sort of melancholic yearning for their past lives, and loved ones: the pivotal scene where Valente shows a sort of… communal service (for want of a better word), in which the zombies seem to mourn all they have lost, is a very powerful one, and it moved me to compassion in a way that I would never have thought possible for these creatures.  It’s a scene best read on one’s own rather than described, and it changed my perception of zombies in a major way.

Touching, poignant and wonderfully written.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: DEADLANDS:BONEYARD, by Seanan McGuire

I received this novel from Macmillan-Tor/Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to all of them for this opportunity.

As a fan of author Seanan McGuire, I could not let myself miss this new book that promised to be something different from her usual Urban Fantasy offerings: from GoodReads I learned that the Deadlands book series is derived from a role-playing game, and since I know nothing of the gaming world I wondered if this might have somehow prevented me from fully enjoying the story, but I should not have worried because Boneyard walks quite surely on its own legs and what’s more it’s the kind of story that draws you in and does not let you come up for air until the end.  Which is hardly surprising at all, since it’s Seanan McGuire we’re talking about after all and, no matter how biased this might sound, her craft as a storyteller is such that she can draw you in and keep you there, not in spite of the darkness and the fear, but because in her hands these elements can become as mesmerizing as more light-hearted ones.

What’s more, the story’s background is set in the Wild West, in the era of bold settlers forging their way over uncharted territory to build a new life, but with the added spice of a supernatural/horror theme (and some steampunk elements as well): what could be more attractive, particularly since I read the book in the days just before Halloween?  For this very reason I decided that posting this review today would be quite appropriate 🙂

The story in short: the Blackstone Family Circus faces some difficult decisions, since winter is approaching and the show has not gathered enough income with their tour to survive comfortably during the cold season, so they are debating whether to accept a potentially remunerative gig in the Oregon settlement of the Clearing, a place where some companies are rumored to have reaped good earnings while others suffered unexplainable losses.  Annie Pearl is the keeper of the “oddities”, bizarre and often deadly creatures that she gathered all over the country, like the nibblers – piranha-like fish cursed with perpetual hunger and terrible teeth that jut “out at all angles, making it impossible for the fish to feed without biting themselves”: Annie has been with the circus for several years, and we soon learn that she escaped with her mute daughter Adeline from the house of her worse-than-abusive husband, and has been hiding with the circus ever since.  Once the company reaches the Clearing, a bowl-like hollow surrounded by a dense, strangely looming forest, they find the settlers less than welcoming and prone to bizarre behavior, to say the least.

The very first night after their arrival, the circus people find themselves fighting fire, nightmarish predatory creatures and the hostile indifference of the townies, and it falls on Annie – desperately searching for Adeline in the treacherous woods – to uncover the Clearing’s horrible secrets while also facing the long-dreaded return of her husband Michael bent on reclaiming what he considers his properties.  The main action develops over that long, horror-filled night that seems to go on forever, both for the characters and in the reader’s perception: to call this a compulsive read would indeed be the understatement of the century…

On the surface Boneyard is a story about horror and the supernatural, focused on surviving in a hostile environment that’s splendidly represented by the forest surrounding the Clearing, a place where trees seem to possess a life of their own and a malicious will, and shadows can take shape and form, pressing on the unwary travelers to sap their energy and life. Yet, on a deeper level, it’s a tale about facing one’s fears and refusing to succumb to them, about never giving in to despair to the point it might consume us: the legend of the wendigo that’s so skillfully employed here is indeed a case in point, where the hunger-stricken colonists give in to their deprivation and become the beast, devoured by a craving for flesh that can never be sated because it goes beyond the mere material plane and ends destroying one’s soul.

Annie has indeed been hiding for a long time, her sole goal that to protect Adeline: she left her home town of Deseret with literally only the clothes on her back, her infant daughter and the lynx Tranquility and we see through the artfully inserted interludes what she left behind – a man whose unwavering faith in science and in his god-given right to own her, body and soul, reveal him as a true monster.  Despite her need for concealment, however, Annie has grown stronger: caring for the “oddities” in her wagon she has learned to master different kinds and levels of fear and when push comes to shove she understands that she needs to take survival into her own hands and be the aggressor so that she will not become the victim.  Her example helps others find their own courage and the will to fight against the darkness: in this young Martin and his girlfriend Sophia are wonderful examples of timid people who, once faced with the prospect of annihilation, prefer to go down fighting rather than cower in fear waiting for the monsters to kill them.

The other great element of this story is the unstated but always present question about the nature of monsters and how the worst of them always start in human form: the wendigo I already quoted looks like a nightmarish beast, its appearance nothing but the outward manifestation of the shadier, more horrifying sides of our soul; the inhabitants of the Clearing have accepted the price to be paid to the flesh-eating creatures in the woods turning into willing accomplishes, even the younger among them – as shown by the kids who willfully send Adeline into the woods knowing what might find her.  The worst monster however remains Michael Murphy, Annie’s husband, whose depths of depravity and madness I will refrain from describing, leaving this discovery to my fellow readers.

By comparison, the creatures that Annie shows to the paying customers, the “oddities” meant to engender fear and revulsion, end up looking like friendly beings, the danger they represent merely coming from inescapable nature and not from the exertion of a twisted will – and their contribution to the story’s development does nothing but reinforce this notion, particularly in the case of Tranquility the lynx, who deserves a special mention.

Once more Seanan McGuire reveals her skills as writer, offering us a gripping story and some unforgettable characters: no matter the tale she chooses to reveal, rest assured that it will be an amazing experience.

 

My Rating: