Reviews

Review: THE SKIN TRADE, by G.R.R. Martin

 

Reading, or in this case re-reading, the stories contained in the two-volume collection Dreamsongs always reminds me that G.R.R. Martin can speak in many voices, not just that of epic fantasy: The Skin Trade, a long novella or short novel depending on the point of view, is a perfect example of Martin’s wide variety of styles, mixing in this case both horror and urban fantasy in a story that’s quite compelling.

Willie Flambeaux is a collection agent, an unremarkable kind of guy saddled with asthma and a paunch, but he suddenly finds himself at the center of dreadful events as his friends are being murdered in the most savage way – as if mauled by an animal. He asks his friend Randi Wade, a private investigator, to look into the matter, even though he knows this will raise some dark ghosts from her past: twenty years before Randi’s father, a police officer, was killed by some kind of animal, so the official report went, an animal that was uncannily able to withstand being shot with the entire load of Wade Senior’s gun, and disappear.

As the two of them try to make sense of the evidence in the recent murder spree, and to overcome what looks like blindness or lack of interest from the police, we learn that Willie is a werewolf – or, as he prefers to say, a lycanthrope, and that there is a good number of these creatures in the city.  What’s even more alarming is that the victims of the ghastly murders were lycanthropes themselves, and that therefore – as the pack leader and unofficial city owner Jonathan Harmon warns Willie – there is someone or something that is hunting the hunters.

One of the most fascinating sides of this story, aside from its fast, compelling pace, is the new outlook adopted for the werewolf myth: the transformation is not dependent on the moon, as the werewolves can change at whim, and that in the shifted form they are more powerful, have more stamina and can overcome any physical problem present in their human aspect.  For example, Willie’s asthma disappears completely when he becomes a wolf, and his friend Joan – the first victim – though paralyzed as a human, was able to move and run when she changed.   Still, the lycanthropes are sensitive to silver, and that detail will prove very important in the course of the story…

Another element I enjoyed is the banter between Randi and Willie, who have known each other for a long time and despite their differences have managed to build a friendship that’s based on mutual respect and trust, even though it’s hidden under Randi’s verbal barbs and Willie’s futile but still enthusiastic attempts at seducing the investigator.  There is a slow buildup and an equally slow reveal about the creature that is killing werewolves all over the city, and the last part of the story is a breathless rush that will keep you turning the pages compulsively.

And on a side note, you can also appreciate this novella in audio format, where Randi Wade is played by Australian actress Claudia Black (a.k.a. Farscape’s Aeryn Sun), an experience I wholeheartedly recommend.

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Reviews

Review: KILL CREEK, by Scott Thomas

 

Horror, like humor, is a very delicate narrative substance and even if the two find themselves at the very opposites of the writing scale, they share the need for fine balance and even finer control if one seeks to reach a believable and satisfactory result.  This is indeed the case with Scott Thomas’ Kill Creek, a story that on the surface seems to share many elements with other horror novels (a haunted house, a group of people who enter it and suffer dreadful experiences, their attempts at fighting the evil, and so on), but in the end manages to defy any prediction and to offer a unique reading experience that surpasses even the highest of expectations.  If the information I found on GoodReads about Mr. Thomas is correct, this should be his first novel, which makes it all the more extraordinary for the skill he exhibits with pace and characterization: I will certainly keep an eye on his future production, because here is a quite promising author in the genre.

A group of four horror writers, each different in personality and narrative mode, receives an invitation from Justin Wainwright, the owner of WrightWire – a site dedicated to horror in all its declinations – to spend Halloween night in the Finch House at Kill Creek, a remote Kansas location: the resulting interview with the authors will be streamed online and serve as much-needed publicity for every one of them. And the four need it because, in one way or the other, their careers are at a crossroads.

Sam McGarver, a man saddled with a dark past that has left him scarred in body and mind, is dealing with writer’s block and has accepted a teaching position to help make ends meet; T.C. Moore has become famous for her dark, no-holds-barred, sexually explicit stories, but a recent encounter with the Hollywood executives in charge of the movie from her latest novel angered and unsettled her more than she can deal with; Sebastian Cole is considered the dean of horror writers, inspiring many to follow in his footsteps, yet he feels that his career is at an end; and Daniel Slaughter made a name for himself with YA horror stories laced with a Christian message of redemption and hope, but his audience is dwindling day by day and his publisher is ready to cut him loose.   Each one of them resents Wainwright’s bold-faced summons and the certainty of deception they perceive in his manner, but the opportunity is too good to be passed over, and the group travels to Kill Creek and the house whose first owner and his lover were killed shortly before the Civil War, giving origin to the tales about the mansion being haunted.

At this point, one might expect the story to proceed over a well-traveled path, with the night bringing uncounted horrors and the people in the house not reaching the next morning alive; instead the Halloween at Finch House flows in a very mundane way, with the sole exception of the mediatic slaughter perpetrated by Wainwright on his guests, as he exploits their weaknesses without mercy to spice up the podcast he so meticulously planned.  Of course some strange occurrences manifest themselves during the night, but all of them can be attributed to the peculiar atmosphere of the house and the personal ghosts each person carries inside.  On the next morning, the group departs to scatter again toward their former lives, and that’s one of the novel’s best angles – the choice of letting them go unscathed, against all expectations. Because the true, chilling horror starts only after they leave the house behind them – or so they think….

Kill Creek is a powerful, well-crafted story that relies more on psychological horror rather than the graphic kind, even though the latter part of the novel does turn quite bloody and horrific (so be warned about that…): yet the explicit violence manages to feel less frightening than the kind visited on the soul of the victims.  A case in point is that of the character driven to kill others in a most shocking way, and yet constantly saying he’s sorry and asking for forgiveness even as he performs his bloody task, the torment of the acts he’s compelled to execute still managing to scar his mind and soul, both betrayed out of their basic gentleness by a force outside of his control.  And that force is exerted by a very peculiar entity, the house itself, that here possesses a definite personality that turns it into another character, one imbued with a profound evil that appears all the more frightening because of its lack of definite origin, not in spite of it.

No reason is given for the house’s profound need of belief in its haunted, creepy nature, yet this insatiable hunger and the way the house can sink its hooks into the victims’ minds and force them to do its bidding is a chilling, unexpected development.  The old mansion appears like a skilled manipulator, one that knows people’s most buried secrets and fears and uses them to maneuver the victims like puppets on strings: the four writers’ back-stories are beautifully interlaced with the narrative and transformed from old ghosts into present terrors that take on shape and substance, breaking the barrier between the real and the imagined, the merely feared and the concrete danger that can hurt, maim and kill.

The experience the characters undergo at the “hands” of the Kill Creek house is one that strips them of their outer defenses and forces them to confront their inner selves, and to change: one might say that they come out of it (those who do, that is…) as very different people – how different, only time will tell, because there is no real resolution to the story, as the last few paragraphs show with a quite unexpected revelation.  Even though, on hindsight, it should not have been so unexpected in consideration of the total lack of predictability that is the leitmotif of this novel.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating: 

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: 

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: