Thursday, November 12, 2015

#braincandy: Southern Gods, by John Hornor Jacobs

Night Shade Books, 2011
270 pp


Have you ever been so engrossed in a story only to be disappointed as it  falls apart at the end? That's what happens here in Southern Gods.  Evidently most of the readers of this book didn't notice -- I'm looking at a HUGE number of 4- and 5-star reader reviews  both at GR and at Amazon.  Here's the thing -- it's one thing to create a world where such things are possible, but it's another thing all together to at least try to make you story somewhat believable in the context of that world.

In a very brain-candyish sort of way (which I'll admit, I need every so often to unwind) I was hooked on this book, which my pulp fiction group chose as its November group reading choice.  It starts with a brief but powerful prologue in 1878, then flashes forward to 1951.  There are two main strands of narrative here that will eventually come together -- the first is the story of Bull Ingram, a giant of a man and WWII vet who sees visions; the second that of Sarah (nee Rheinhart), who is fleeing an abusive husband, leaving him for the old family home in Arkansas to take care of her mother who is dying from lupus.  Ingram is a collector for a loan shark type of guy, but he is hired by another man,  a record producer who specializes in "black music,"  to look into the mysterious disappearance of his employee Earle Freeman.  Earle's job was to drive around to the small radio stations "peppering the countryside," deliver 45s & payola to get the music played.  Now he's gone -- the last known sighting of him was in the small Arkansas town of Brinkley, where there are only two cops who were of no help at all.  Finding Earle is only one half of Ingram's job, however -- he is also tasked with discovering the location and owner of a pirate radio station, also in Arkansas. The station plays the music of one Ramblin' John Hastur, a blues artist whose music has terrible effects on anyone who listens to it.

The second thread picks up Sarah's story at the family home (Gethsemane), where she has gone with her small daughter Franny. Her dying mother provides her with the excuse she needs to get away from her PTSD-suffering husband who has become abusive since returning from the war.  Sarah has time on her hands so she begins exploring the family library, and decides it might be fun to translate a book written in Latin, a subject she enjoyed in school.  Unfortunately for Sarah she picks the wrong book -- struggling a bit, she turns to a local priest who, coincidentally, just happened to be in Arkansas after being banished from the Vatican, where he was one of the priests in charge of the occult books in the secret Vatican library.  It also just happens (there's so much coincidence in this book it boggles the mind) that the book Sarah is currently translating was one formerly housed in the Vatican library, and the priest tries to warn her away.  But, of course, this doesn't happen and some very strange things start happening, meriting another visit with the priest who tries to explain it all.

Eventually (as if one couldn't guess), the two main threads come together and all hell literally breaks loose. Sadly, it's at this juncture where things start to royally fall apart.  To be fair, up to this point, I was very much into this story up to chapter 20 and then it was like the author said "what the hell do I now, once I have my two main characters come together?"  The result isn't pretty -- there is the stupidest sex scene, a truly bad deus ex machina episode complete with divine intervention (super ouch), crappy dialogue and super huge plot holes that just made me crazy.  Oy! It was like another author took over and had no clue what to do to bring this book to a decent close.  And as I noted up front, even in the context of the world Jacobs has created here where such things can happen, the ending was just badly done -- to the point where I wanted to toss the book across the room.  For me, even in a book like this that I consider major brain candy, there's really no excuse for that sort of thing -- and it was incredibly frustrating.  Jacobs could have done so much more with this story; as it is, it was disappointing to say the least.

a huge  aarrghhh from me....

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

back to our time with urban horror: Nightscape: Cynopolis, by David W. Edwards

Imperiad Entertainment, 2015
342 pp

paperback (my copy from the author, thank you!)

Nightscape: Cynopolis is book number two in Edwards' Nightscape horror series of books (following The Dreams of Devils)  and looking at the back of the book, a third one is slated for release in October 2016.  I think I might actually have to pick that one up (memo to self) -- it's billed as "Cosmic horror brought home giallo-style..."  and anyone who knows me well knows that I have a major thing for giallo.  But that's next year -- the focus here and  now is on Cynopolis, which was just published in October.

This book is a true hybrid -- here you'll find a mix of horror, science fiction, and some high-powered thriller action on  the streets of Detroit.  Not my usual fare at all, but I thought I'd be brave and give it a try, taking an outing away from my reading comfort zone for a while.  This isn't a book you can breeze through in a day or two -- as someone from Kirkus Reviews notes it is
"replete with associative memories, literary allusion, intellectual discourse, and references to Hegel, Plato, Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, Sartre and Athanasius Kircher, to name a few."
First pre-read selling point: this guy is no hack writer.  The second is my own pulpy fascination with all things Egyptian that stems from an indoor-kid sort of childhood.

Cynopolis covers three days/nights of sheer terror for the residents of Detroit. As the story opens, a homeless bookseller named Joe Kye  aka Khonsu  whose life had seen better times drops in to visit a friend.  Meet Gaston, aka Mister,  who is suffering from MS and has visions which according to his wife involve "decoder ring nonsense" --
"Sirius -- the star -- ancient Egypt, Anubis, the Dogon people, Hart Plaza, God, aliens..."
Mister is at death's door, but in their respective heydays, both men were part of an activist group in the 1970s called The 19th Brumaire, hoping for a "real revolution" against the system,  specifically in terms of race.  Mister believes now that the movement was too "cautious," that they "should've burned the earth alive," and likens the underclasses of  African-Americans of Detroit today to
"thousands of stray dogs -- scared, disorganized, without a ready means to change things, scraping by." 
While his wife and Khonsu think that Mister's brain is a bit warped, Mister believes he has been visited by a voice from Sirius or Sirius B that he calls Anubis -- some sort of entity that has been trapped in the confines of another dimension and one who is giving him instructions.  The long and short of it is that while everyone thinks Mister has gone off the deep end, with the help of this thing from another dimension,  Mister is able to release his anger and revolutionary zeal  via some sort of thought virus which makes dogs turn on humans and also turns some people into cannibalistic jackal-headed beings that want to destroy everything and everyone in their paths. Three days of sheer terror ensue while these things roam the streets, but they are not the only forces that the survivors have to worry about.

Obviously, this novel is so far off my own beaten path that I'm actually a bit surprised at myself for agreeing to read it, but it turned out to be  a pretty decent book. My description is way oversimplified -- there are human stories among the monsters, for example, the cop whose wife sees the writing on the wall about the dangers of living in Detroit but can't convince her husband that they really need to move, or Khonsu's story about how his life moved him toward homelessness and losing everything of value he ever had (including a family), etc. etc.   Sometimes though, the story seems unnecessarily complicated to me mainly in terms of many of the scifi aspects, getting a little out there for my taste; and as I said earlier, I'm not a big fan of action-packed, kickass thrillers. However, to be fair to the author, put together as a whole, it all actually makes sense in this world of his creation.

When all is said and done, this book actually got under my skin enough that I haven't looked at a dog in the same way since I read it. And despite the parts that I thought were over the top, it has enough of a creep factor to keep the pages turning and enough tension racheting so that you have to see the whole story through to the ending to find out what happens to these people.  While urban horror might not be my particular thing, I'm sure that people who are much more  into it will really enjoy this book.

Monday, November 9, 2015

book #5: Fingers of Fear, by J.U. Nicolson

Valancourt Books, 2015
(originally published 1937)
213 pp


Yes, yes,  I realize it's now way past Halloween, but I did manage to squeeze this in before the 31st of October, so I'm counting it toward  my "road to Halloween" little miniseries of books.

This 1937 title has been brought back recently into print and out of obscurity by Valancourt, whose books are sending me to the poorhouse because I can't resist picking up their latest titles.  I'm smiling all the way there though, because so far I've had incredible luck with the books I've bought -- some I probably would never have even known existed without the Valancourt guys making it possible.  Fingers of Fear continues my run of good luck with this publisher -- here you have an old family home filled to the brim with family secrets, quite possibly an outbreak of lycanthropy, ghosts that stalk secret passages and (this is so cool) a portrait whose evil eyes watch anyone coming within its purview.  While the plot and the action may be a bit convoluted at times and a bit hard to follow in moments, it's a really fun mix of gothic and the supernatural all rolled into one.

Fingers of Fear is set in depression-era America, and young Selden Seaforth is down to his last coins. With no money and no job, life is tough for him; he's also divorced from his wife.  As he's despairing of what to do, bemoaning the fact that he's so poor that even his so-called friends from better days tend to ignore him, fortune smiles out of the blue in the form of Ormond Ormes.  Ormes had been at school with Seaforth -- they meet and Ormes offers Seaforth a job which seems tailor made for him.  It seems that because of some conditions in a relative's will, Ormes must have his rather extensive book collection catalogued and summarized (it's a bit more complicated, but that description will suffice for now).  Seaforth will have room, board, and desperately-needed money.  It all sounds so perfect, but as is usually the case in these sorts of things, it turns out to be a case of "if it sounds too good to be true, it generally is."  Ormes takes him to the family home in the Berkshires, Ormesby, drops him off and returns him to the city; and virtually no time passes before Seaforth has his first supernatural encounter which shakes him to his rational, logical core.  While trying to figure out what's going on at Ormesby and dealing with the inhabitants who keep family secrets tucked away for their own reasons,  the supernatural encounters increase and then the first body is found...

an old family summer home in the Berkshires, from

As I noted above, the action in this book can be a little convoluted but reading patiently pays off in spades. There are secrets within secrets to be found here, creepy secret passages that lead to an unexpected discovery, and the story is actually quite good. Above all, though, Nicolson had a major talent for atmosphere -- and the minute the reader arrives with Seaforth at Ormesby, he/she will be plunged directly into a veritable den of Gothic terrors served up with a side of the supernatural.   Aside from his wandering plot, the author writes very well. Considering he wasn't a regular author of supernatural/weird tales,  he pulls it off quite nicely.  It is also a book of its time -- Depression-era America is well portrayed in this story in terms of an embedded commentary on  underlying social issues of the 1930s.

For me, Fingers of Fear was a fine, fun read in an old-school horror/gothic sort of way. It may not capture the minds and hearts of modern readers who must have something incredibly gross, violent or downright demeaning in some cases to get their horror jollies,  but if like me you are finding your way back to a time before all of those elements  were somehow necessary for a good chill, this might just be a good one to pick up. This book is a very welcome addition to my ever-growing dark fiction/horror/weird/supernatural library where the Valancourt editions are slowly taking over the shelves.