LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE by Sarah Davis-Goff

Last Ones Left Alive
By Sarah Davis-Goff
Flatiron Books — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250235220
288 Pages — Hardback


A friend and I have a disagreement each time The Road comes up in conversation. I find the novel overly sparse and dull, and its literary accolades frustrate me given that genre has done the same themes well for years (albeit also poorly). My friend explains that both the novel and movie resonate with him as a father, and I concede that’s a connection I wouldn’t have.

Last Ones Left Alive represents an opposite of The Road in a couple of respects. Davis-Goff employs a feminist focus where McCarthy wrote of masculinity, and she reverses the parent-child relationship and point-of-view so that it is the younger generation bearing the responsibility of care. For whatever reasons, although being male myself, I found Last Ones Left Alive‘s take on the post-apocalyptic setting and characters for more relatable and interesting.

Orpen has grown up living in relative isolation on an island off the coast of Ireland with her mother, Mam, and Mam’s partner Maeve. There are no reasons to travel off the island, and many reasons not to. Civilization has collapsed and zombie-like monsters called skrake prowl about, savage remnants of what used to be human. Mam and Maeve have raised Orpen to defend herself, but also to be extremely wary of both the unnatural skrake and natural dangers, including what the human male could present to a young woman.

Orpen has had no choice but to leave the island in search of survivors on the mainland, in the fabled Phoenix City, a bastion of peace protected by a class of warrior women called Banshees. As the novel begins, Orpen trudges on blistered feet, pushing Maeve in a wheel barrow, a dog at their side:

Around us the landscape changes constantly. The road shifts beneath me, twists and slopes, and every time I look up, the world presents me with something new and I feel fresh too. Despite myself, despite everything. The world ended a long time ago, but it is still beautiful.

We are moving.

Looking at her lying slumped in the barrow makes my chest feel like it’s collapsing in on itself. She is so small- “scrawny” is the word. She never used to be small. I look away, and twenty paces later I’m at it again, watching the closed-up face with the sweaty sheen.

We move. We rest again. The dog beside us, the nails on his paws clacking against the road. I can feel the hesitation off him. He’s asking me do I know what I’m doing and don’t I want to go home.

I do, I tell him. But I can’t.

Maeve’s lined skin is being burned by the sun underneath its grayness. I take off my hat and put it on her lightly, so most of her face is in shadow. I can pretend she’s asleep. I stop again and rearrange her so she’s facing forward, facing into whatever’s coming at us. She’d feel better that way. I feel better. Maeve wasn’t one for looking too often at me anyway, unless for a fight.

I’ve a new pain, then, the sun pounding down on one stop at the top of my forehead.

We move. My fear so big, so palpable, that it could be an animal walking beside us. I try to make friends with it.

pp. 2 – 3

Davis-Goff’s writing thus moves fluidly, a mixture of hopeful, imaginative descriptions punctuated with short, hard truths. She gives Orpen a voice of utter exhaustion, yet propped up from despair through resilience. Through the clouds of melancholy and fear poke shines of her faith and wonderment.

A short novel, Last Ones Left Alive has the feel of a perfect novella, though I don’t know its word count for where it technically falls. The pace starts off wonderfully, immersing the reader in Orpen’s world amid a struggle to figure out precisely what is going on. After a short time, action breaks out, and soon Orpen meets other humans. Things slow after the initial start, as Davis-Goff takes us both deeper into Orpen’s character and provides flashbacks into her life before on the island with Mam and Maeve. Falling onto the literary side of things, the novel is never really about action, and the skrake play minor roles in comparison to the focus on Orpen’s maturation and discoveries.

Last Ones Left Alive is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s self realization, but also evolving from what she has internalized from parental instruction to form her own perceptions of the world in its beauties and dangers. Her guardians and protectors lost, she rapidly learns to be this herself, for self and others.

Only one male character appears in Last Ones Left Alive, one of the people Orpen encounters while on her journey to Phoenix City. Based on what she has been taught of men, she nearly kills the man upon meeting him in order to protect herself, little different from if she ran into a skrake. However, the behaviors of the man soon show her the faultiness of a simple anti-male perspective. Unlike skrake, humanity is complex.

The novel ends with many questions unresolved, several possible futures for the fate of Orpen, secondary characters, and the role of the Banshees. While I was happy with the ending, I imagine some readers wanting more closure and answers could be disappointed. I do not know if a sequel is planned, but one could easily work. Though satisfied with where things sit, I would certainly not turn down more.


THE KRAKEN SEA by

The Kraken Sea
By E. Catherine Tobler
Apex Book Company — June 2016
ISBN: 1937009408
125 Pages — Paperback


From its beginning, Tobler’s The Kraken Sea percolates with atmospheric prose, establishing a lusciously murky fantasy that its cover promises in vivid, dark tones. Although featuring touches of the horror genre, the novella taxonomically fits somewhere between dark fantasy and ‘weird fiction’. But at its core rests the familiar plot and themes of a mainstream coming-of-age tale, a protagonist in search of discovering – and accepting – themselves.

Jackson is a fifteen year old orphan in the care of nuns and their overseeing priests in a late nineteenth century New York hospital. But Jackson is different than the other orphans there; a monstrous nature lies beneath his surface, ready to break forth when he loses control. Tentacles undulate inside him, and scales form upon his skin. Aside from Sister Jerome Grace, others look at him with uncertainty and fear, leaving Jackson unwanted and ashamed.

But this changes when the sisters bring Jackson to a train enshrouded in smoke and steam, where they explain that he has been picked to live with someone across the country in San Francisco. A woman named Cressida owns and runs an entertainment establishment there named Macquarie’s, and she has been searching for a boy with unique characteristics. A boy like Jackson.

Arriving at Macquarie’s, Jackson discovers a foreboding world of magic and cut-throat business rivalries. Bronze lions guard the entrance to consume anyone they deem unworthy, physical spaces within shift, and a shadow-eating kraken lurks in the basement depths. Everywhere, secrets abide for Jackson to discover, including those of his origin, Cressida’s intentions, and the allegiances of Mae, a mysteriously attractive lion-tamer from a rival gang.

Some themes of The Kraken Sea, and the names of certain characters, directly reference the Greek mythology of the Moirai, AKA the three Fates. I’m not particularly well-read in classical mythology and in general find it overstuffed with confusing complexity, like comic universes. Though the novella uses this mythology as a defining aspect, it isn’t the only stone Tobler includes in her foundation for the story. She balances that Greek myth with elements of Lovecraft, steampunk, and general YA literature to create a nice blend that never goes too far down one road.

Although I don’t favor the novella length in general and I found this did drag a bit in its middle I still enjoyed the overall mystery and adventure of this. Above all, the weird, dark atmosphere of the text is superb. Tobler’s writing is beautiful, her words richly evocative of the magically strange world The Kraken Sea is set in. Cressida, with the live fox she wears around her neck, represents a powerful, memorable character who steals scenes and the imagination.

I think I would love this even more were it developed into a full-fledged novel, but it still serves as an entertaining read filled with intoxicating language and imagery that readers of dark fantasy will appreciate.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019. Look for reviews of other Apex titles in the upcoming weeks.

In the meantime, they are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

April Short Speculative Fiction in Translation

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Each month, I will be reviewing new translated short works of SF, fantasy, and horror that appear either online or in print for Speculative Fiction in Translation, a site run by the wonderful Rachel Cordasco (@Rcordas). A podcast recording of her updates is now also appearing as part of Skiffy & Fanty. Each month I’ll post a link to my reviews here as well.
In the April debut edition I review:
  • “Deep Sea Fish” by Chi Hui, translated from the Chinese by Brian Bies (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  • “Fifth: You Shall Not Waste” by Piero Schiavo Campo, translated from the Italian by Sarah Jane Webb (AkashicBooks.com)
  • “The Wings of Earth” by Jiang Bo, translated from the Chinese by Andy Dudak (Clarkesworld)
  • “Taklamakan Misdelivery” by Bae Myung-hoon, translated from the Korean by Sung Ryu (Asymptote Journal)
  • “Aspirin” by Park Min-gyu, translated from the Korean by Agnel Joseph (Asymptote Journal)

THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, VOLUME SEVEN, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven

Edited by Ellen Datlow
Night Shade Books – August 2015
ISBN 9781597805759 – 400 Pages – eBook
Source: Edelweiss


Contents:
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“Winter Children” by Angela Slater
“A Dweller in Amenty” by Genevieve Valentine
“Outside Heavenly” by Rio Youers
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix
“Allochton” by Livia Llewellyn
“Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones
“This is Not For You” by Gemma Files
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“The Culvert” by Dale Bailey
“Past Reno” by Brian Evenson
“The Coat off His Back” by Keris McDonald
“The Worms Crawl” by Laird Barron
“The Dogs Home” by Alison Littlewood
“Persistence of Vision” by Orrin Grey
“It Flows from the Mouth” by Robert Shearman
“Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor
“Departures” by Carole Johnstone
“Ymir” by John Langan
“Plink” by Kurt Dinan
“Nigredo” by Cody Goodfellow

A week of short story collection reviews, and the second of a horror anthology edited by the hardworking Ellen Datlow. This seventh volume of the Best Horror of the Year series came out last summer; Volume Eight is now available as well, though I haven’t gotten to read it yet. For fans or the curious,  you can currently enter to win a copy of the new volume in a Goodreads’ giveaway courtesy of Night Shade Books (entry deadline of 12th August 2016).
 –
In the sea of short story anthologies Volume Seven  is excellent, and it represents the variety of horror short fiction well. How you define horror and your expectations of the genre may cloud your appreciation of this. But if you are a regular reader there shouldn’t be any big surprises in the kinds of stories here or the authors included: genre leaders who frequently appear in horror anthologies, certainly those edited by Datlow. Horror is not always synonymous with scary or supernatural, so there is a range of tales in the collection which brush against other labels within the continuum of genre – such as crime, or ‘mainstream lit’.
As always with such variety most readers won’t love everything here, because reading has that personal component and none of us are clones of Datlow. (Or are some of you out there? Hmmm, that would explain her prolific output of quality…) For me there were several stories in Volume Seven that I just didn’t care for. It also features a relatively high number of entries I had read previously, most notably three from the Datlow-edited Fearful Symmetries (reviewed by me here). Those three in question are all excellent, but I know readers may have an issue with such recycling. I didn’t mind too much as I read them far enough apart, but even to me it seemed a bit too high in overlap. Then again if you aren’t a regular reader of this stuff, you won’t mind a bit!
 –
This volume begins with Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” one of those Fearful Symmetries stories. Mixing the occult, black-market antiques, and a criminal underworld the story is dark and entertaining, in a manner that reminds me, with its bayou setting, of Albert E. Cowdrey’s fantasy/horror often found in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ballingrud’s story is just as entertaining and the prose is even more magical. The aforementioned magazine is the source of another of my favorite stories in this volume, Dale Bailey’s “The Culvert”, which deals with the creepy, dangerous explorations of childhood and the connection between twins. Robert Shearman’s stories are always inventive and creepy (I previously reviewed his collection They Do the Same Things Differently There), and his offering here of “It Flows from the Mouth” is no different. Highly recommended. Langan has a story here, “Ymir” that fits in mythological fantasy more than horror. I didn’t really care though, as it is an entertaining tale.
One thing I was happy to note in this anthology was the inclusion of two stories from John Joseph Adams’ Nightmare magazine, a relatively young sister to the SFF Lightspeed. Each month this outlet puts out a small selection of quality horror fiction, along with some nonfiction such as essays on what ‘horror’ means to various individuals. The two stories included here may not have been my favorite from that year from its electronic pages, but they are quite good. “This is Not for You” by Gemma Files is from their Women Destroy Horror! special issue that I still haven’t managed to read, and I hope the rest of it is as interesting and well done as Files’ story. Valentine’s story “A Dweller in Amenty” is a poignant and powerful one on the concept of ‘Sin-eating’.
The biggest, and most surprising, disappointment in the collection is “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan. I had high expectations as I like Kiernan’s dark fiction, and lots of other readers were calling this a favorite. Its language is utterly melodic and beautiful, but I found it ultimately un-engaging beyond that, the story predictable and flat. On the other end of the spectrum “Plink” by Kurt Dinan impressed me greatly. Psychological horror that touches the sometimes difficult relationship between teacher and student, it perhaps connected with me even more because of my academic profession. Dinan is utterly new to me though he’s appeared in other collections before, such as Paula Guran’s 2010 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. He recently had his debut novel for young adults released (Don’t Get Caught), and that’s now on my  to-read list.
This wasn’t my favorite collection edited by Datlow, but it was still very enjoyable overall and it reinforced some favorite authors in my memory for future reading decisions. Most fans of horror fiction or interested newbies should certainly give it a look, but if you extensively read the genre there will be better anthology options out there of original material of course.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

THE MONSTROUS, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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The Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tachyon Publications – October 2015
ASIN B010MCWEI6 – 384 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ashputtle” by Peter Straub
“Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey
“The Beginning of the Year without Summer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“A Wish from a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn
“The Totals” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Chill Clutch of the Unseen” by Kim Newman
“Down Among the Dead Men” by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
“Grindstone” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Doll Hands” by Adam L.G. Nevill
“How I Met the Ghoul” by Sofia Samatar
“Jenny Come to Play” by Terry Dowling
“Miss Ill-Kept Runt” by Glen Hirshberg
“Chasing Sunset” by A.C. Wise
“The Monster Makers” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Piano Man” by Christopher Fowler
“Corpsemouth” by John Langan

For anyone familiar with editor Datlow the short review for her recent horror anthology The Monstrous would be that it is everything you’ve come to expect from her superb taste and expert experience. If you’ve liked previous anthologies from her, you’ll love this. If you’re a decided non-fan, I wouldn’t expect this anthology to change your mind, tastes in horror just don’t match.
 –
For anyone wanting to give modern horror a try who hasn’t read a Datlow anthology, this is a fine place to start, if not her previous curated volumes. Awhile back I reviewed another Datlow anthology, Fearful Symmetries. Several of the authors featured in that collection reappear here offering new works, and a small number of stories are actually duplicated. In the case of Gemma File’s “A Wish from a Bone” I particularly didn’t mind the rerun. Her story, featuring a TV documentary crew entering an ancient Middle Eastern tomb, is just as entertaining the second time though. A few of the authors I had hoped would also pop up in this anthology were absent, such as Helen Marshall, but this at least gave me the chance for some new discoveries.
The selections in The Monstrous run the gamut of the horror genre, from the subtle to the creepy, the graphic, and the weird. The anthology’s theme also fits a broad interpretation of ‘monstrous’. The monsters are human and beastly, earthly and supernatural, literal and figurative. In many cases the monstrous is unexpected, as are the directions and tones the stories may take. “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn is perhaps the best example of the latter. The title of this story and its start suggest family-friendly positivity, pleasant days and warmth. But Llewellyn quickly turns behind the façade of tradition and happiness toward the darkness at the heart of a family gathering. This story is Lovecraftian in inspiration, but not so heavily as to ruin my appreciation of its  well-played contrasts.
 –
Peter Straub, a name that should be recognized by anyone familiar with horror, includes “Ashputtle” here, a creepy and subtle story about a kindergarten teacher who appears increasingly a bit ‘off’. Other authors in the collection should be known from short fiction markets, such as Dale Bailey (“Giants in the Earth”) whose work is often in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Sofia Samatar (“How I Met the Ghoul”) whose work has appeared throughout the major ezines, such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny magazines. Bailey’s story of coal miners encountering something abnormal does a great job handling settling and the inherent uneasiness of dangerous professions. Samatar, a Somali American, offers an uncommon (in the West) version of the ghoul, which in  Middle Eastern myth is something more like a desert-based mermaid, a beautiful spirit luring men to their demise.
There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t particularly enjoy in this collection, and most fall into a range I would call ‘very good’. A couple really grabbed me though. “Down Among the Dead Men” is a collaboration between a name unknown to me (Jack Dann) and a well-known science fiction editor (Gardner Dozois). Featuring a vampire in a concentration camp this is the kind of story that obviously has huge symbolic and emotional weight. The combination would be very easy to botch up, but Dann and Dozois pull it off amazingly, creating riveting drama that combines the monstrous and the human. Some may think that the Holocaust has enough horror in it without needing a supernatural addition. Yet, this element of a fantastic monster alongside human atrocity allows development and clarity of profound themes.
The collection ends with “Corpsemouth” by John Langan, a stellar example of an ‘epic’ short story. Including emotional complexity with strong characters and plot this story merges the modern with the ancient. In part its style reminds me of classic gothic horror tales of Britain, but with modern language and present-day context. This marks one of multiple stories in this collection that feature horrors that reveal themselves in relation to family. Perhaps this frequency is because of their power, monstrous realities we are innocently born into and cannot easily escape. Ones we have a responsibility of blood to face and overcome. “Corpsemouth” is a top take on this theme, bringing The Monstrous to a satisfying conclusion that makes me greedily await Datlow’s next project.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART by Ben Tripp

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The Fifth House of the Heart
By Ben Tripp
Gallery Books – July 2015
ISBN 9781476782645 – 400 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


For fans of atmosphere and adventure stories with a paranormal twist, The Fifth House of the Heart is a marvelously fun summer read. This is one of those book equivalents to the summer blockbuster, and I could easily see it adapted as such for the screen. There is nothing particular intellectual to it, no grand social commentary, no character studies that pull at the heartstrings in explorations of the human psyche. What it does have is a well-told story that mixes horror with an international heist, using delightful characters and a dash of humor and gothic thrills.
Imagine that vampires have existed among us, for generations of human lives. Sure, it’s been done countless times before from Dracula to The Southern Vampire Mysteries. But what I haven’t seen is combining the immortality of vampires with inspiration from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. If one could live for centuries, amass global fortunes, and horde goods like a dragon in your lair, just think what priceless antiques one could then collect through the ages to enjoy beside the coffin where you rest, decorating the castle where you lurk.
 –
Admired antiques dealer Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang has gained fortune and glory traveling all over the world acquiring some of the finest artifacts known, including items long lost to history. Sax’s ego and success have been built through a secret edge: he knows that vampires exist and he has hunted and killed them to steal their ancient treasures. Now, late in his life, Sax’s arrogance and greed has caught up to him. A powerful vampire from his past has set sights on Sax, putting his loved ones at risk. Together with a misfit team of thieves,  vampire hunters, and a secret order of the Catholic church, Sax journeys to destroy the monster and gain one last score, into what may be a deadly trap for all.
Part of what makes The Fifth House of the Heart work well is the point-of-view of Sax: one part crotchety old man, one part big softie. He has a great sense of humor, even within the deathly serious situations that face him. Filled with guilt over the luck of his past despite cowardice, he finds moments of bravery, bearing acceptance of his faults and pride for his strengths.
I found Tripp’s take on the vampire myth particularly fascinating though. The vampires of The Fifth House of the Heart only superficially resemble the ‘classic’ European creature. Ancient and strong, but not undead or easily killed by special weapons, they are monsters that begin to take on the characteristics of that which they consume. Those that feed on humans will appear human, according to the gender they favor as prey. Those that feed on other animals will take on that form. In a blend of vampire and shape-shifting myths, Tripp writes the vampires as something truly terrifying, creatures that shine in the horror and gore of some action scenes of the novel.
There are many best-selling novels out there that are written primarily for their entertaining story and likable characters. Those in series tend to quickly become formulaic. Others remain popular despite unintentionally poor writing or scenarios that I think may actually lower a reader’s intelligence. (cough, Dan Brown, cough) For all its fun, The Fifth House of the Heart remains smart. Like most of the books from another horror writer – a guy from Maine who everyone knows – Tripp’s novel doesn’t abandon the essential cores to the art of good writing, even though art is not its purpose at all.
Aside from the plot, (anti?)-hero, and monsters at the novel’s forefront, Tripp also nails so many of the background elements. The secondary characters, historical details, sensory descriptions, and general gothic atmosphere all combine contextually as a foundation for the entertaining story that towers above. This is a book that I look forward to rereading again soon.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

ALICE by Christina Henry

Starting today my goal is to put three new reviews up here each week, Tue – Thurs, to achieve some consistency in posting. For today rather than one, I have a pair of links to reviews recently published elsewhere.

In case you missed it, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty was up recently, on Christina Henry’s Alice, the first book in a series whose sequel The Red Queen was just published by Ace Books.

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“I haven’t read Lewis Carroll before. I’ve never even watched any of the Alice in Wonderland adaptations that have been animated or filmed. But the continual presence of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glassin the popular zeitgeist is sufficient familiarity for anyone to pick up Alice, an arresting novel by Christina Henry published last summer. More inspired by Carroll’s twisted characters and their world as opposed to being a point-by-point ‘retelling’, Christina Henry tweaks Carroll’s work into her own distinct plot and themes, with a marked shift to darkness…” Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher through the Ace Roc Stars group in exchange for an honest review.

TRASH CINEMA, Edited by Andrew J. Rausch and R.D. Riley

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Trash Cinema: A Celebration of Overlooked Masterpieces
Edited by Andrew J. Rausch and R.D. Riley
BearManor Media – 5th June 2015
ISBN 9781593938215 – 242 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Back when I was in high school I found a copy of a VideoHound guide called Cult Flicks and Trash Picks. Armed with this reference source and memberships to some video stores (the small-town independent ones were always the best) I discovered the wonderful world of cult movies, the B- to Z-grade fare of trash that spans the entire age of film. I was, am, a huge fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and still miss it. Some nights nothing hits the spot and helps fight insomnia or an overactive brain like a good piece of cinematic pulp.
Even still, there are a large number of films covered in this collection of essays, Trash Cinema: A Celebration of Overlooked Masterpieces, that I wasn’t too familiar with. Including thoughts on over fifty movies (arranged by title alphabetically) the collection edited by Rausch and Riley is useful just as another reference list of cult movie titles that a fan may want to look up.
Trash cinema (or B movies, cult classics, low budget dreck, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it) is still a highly variable beast. The spectrum runs from movies that are considered works of significant art to works that are barely watchable. In between are a lot of movies that are simply average and dull, having no particular infamy to even allow them to be ‘good’ trash. The essays in the collection tend to run a similar spectrum. As is fitting the genre, the essays are not remotely academic. Most are written in a colloquial language like the author is just talking to a friend at the video store. But they still vary in quality or usefulness in reading. A few I thought did little more than provide a film synopsis. The ones I enjoyed most got far deeper into some kind of analysis, and most entries at least did some.
The movies discussed also run a spectrum across genres within this category of trash, from older movies to newer, SF to noir to horror, ones that are relatively tame to ones that have more adult violence or other depravity. Some trash movies of course try to push the envelope of depravity – or at least shock.
One of the interesting points that came up throughout the essays dealing with this type of cult picture is that they often elicit very different responses between viewers, and even within a single viewer. Some days I can watch Cannibal Holocaust without a care. Other times I get hung up with troubling aspects. When is the shock used as artistic commentary on the society of the day? When is is just crass exploitation? When is it something that should revolt and offend beyond reason? Sometimes an extreme film is a bit of all of these things simultaneously.
Movies that fall in the extremes of the trash camp won’t be for everyone. For instance, I personally can handle a great deal, but my limits are reached with much of the ‘torture porn’ variety. Yet Bloodsucking Freaks proves an exemption for me, the overall subversion and gender themes of the movie make it more interesting and watchable for me. But obviously not for all. But again, a large number of the films in this – the kind for instance that also have been on MST3K (like Manos, the Hands of Fate) aren’t particularly shocking to an audience of this day and age. Apart from perhaps their quality 🙂
The advent of DVDs killed off the wide range of trash availability I could find with VHS. Recently I’ve found some Roku streaming options for these kinds of movies (Netflix is poorly lacking for the most part). So this collection was welcome and gave me good ideas for titles to put on my “to watch” lists, and also forewarned me of a few that I can tell won’t be for me. Overall a good resource for a trash digging fan.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

TRUTH OR DARE?, Edited by Max Booth III

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Truth or Dare?
Edited By Max Booth III
Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing – 31st October 2015
ISBN 9780986059452  – 234 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Shackled to the Shadows”, by Richard Thomas
“An Unpleasant Truth about Death”, by Eric J. Guignard
“Mantid”, by Kenneth W. Cain
“A Ribbon, a Rover”, by Jessica McHugh
“Iz”, by Eli Wilde
“Laal Andhi”, by Usman T. Malik
“The Bone Witch”, by Chantal Noordeloos
“The Pole”, by William Meikle
“Lucy’s Arrow”, by Jay Wilburn
“Change”, by Peter & Shannon Giglio
“Marco Polo”, by James Chambers
“The Dog Metaphor”, by Vincenzo Bilof
“The Whited Sepulchre”, by Nik Korpon
“Rattlebone Express”, by Sanford Allen
“The Shadow Life of Suburbia”, by T. Fox Dunham
“The Other Bonfire”, by Jeremy C. Shipp
“Oh Fuck, it’s the Cops”, by Joe McKinney

        –

I wish I would’ve had copy of this back around the time it was initially released, because it would be the perfect thing to read through the nights around Halloween. The short stories of this themed horror collection Truth or Dare of course share a framework around the party game. But they also share a common universe in setting and characters, the high school students of Greene Point High in Ohio who gather around a bonfire on Halloween night to reveal untold tales or meet the twisted challenges of peers.
While the shared aspect works fine as a setup, the collection doesn’t really hold up to many strong linkages between stories, and it is hard to envision how the events of all the stories could possibly all have occurred during this one supposed night. Yet, this aspect is something that can just be basically ignored, and each of the stories work fine with separate consideration as part of a shared theme collection rather than a shared universe narrative as well.
The stories reminded me of the quality and breadth that readers could expect from typical horror short fiction markets, including Nightmare Magazine, which I’m most familiar with, and the collection includes well-established authors and new-comers alike. A few of the stories didn’t impress me much, but on the whole the collection kept me entertained and provided the slight chills that scary stories and horror provide.
Truth or Dare opens with Thomas’ “Shackled to the Shadows”, which does a good job at setting the overall tone, first person narration, and a general structure shared by many of the loosely connected stories. With this story one already gets a sense that there are many levels of horror surrounding this high school game: the pains of being an outsider within the harsh realms of teenage existence, the monstrosity that people can manifest and the hatred it can in turn engender from victims. Beyond the internal viciousness of the characters there is also the impression of external malevolence, supernatural and ancient. In this opening story and beyond the reader sees that there is the horror of the story itself, but like all good campfire tales they conclude with hints of an even greater horror awakened, to come.
After the opening story heavy on tone, Guignard’s “An Unpleasant Truth about Death” relates an interesting plot about a near (or perhaps actual) death experience that highlights the dangers of intense curiosity and touches upon the power that games like Truth or Dare have, a superstitious hold of rules that one doesn’t take seriously on the level of rationality, but breeds deep fear in the soul upon transgression.
Though entertaining, Guignard’s story (or the one related by the character at least) has the feeling of being contrived – to have that creepy effect on the reader (or the fictional audience in the story). This isn’t a bad thing, I think it’s partially something integral to these kinds of stories, and it reminded me somewhat of the way classic creepy folklore goes, having an emotional effect but then triggering questions about how some plot detail could really happen – or why. This kind of effect casts doubt on whether the scary story is true, giving the audience a rational out to discount danger and allay fear. But what if it did happen?
Perhaps you can recall Schwartz’s classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections? Many of the stories in Truth or Dare reminded me of that style, tone, and plotting, but for an adult audience. Jessica McHugh’s “A Ribbon, Rover” is a great example of that, with a compelling plot that seems inventive yet also something born of ageless tales, mirroring the character of the story itself. I’ve read one novel of McHugh’s prior, but this is closer to actual classic horror and I look forward to reading more in that vein from her lovely mind. “The Bone Witch” and “Rattlebone Express” are two others that recalled those feelings of fairy tale and folklore in excellent modern fashion.
“The Bone Witch” also had slight tones of humor in it, despite a rather horrific situation and outcome. “Change” later in the collection from the Giglios also has this certain lightness, which provides some nice variety amid the more darkly emotional stories or the creature horrors of stories like “Mantid” and McKinney’s closing piece.
A few stories also delve into deeper waters of real horror, or in the case of “Iz” tackle the general issue of what makes a monster, what they do both to threaten society or perhaps provide for society. “The Pole” almost literally brings up Nazi skeletons in the closet and “Marco Polo” tackles the very real horrors of abuse. Malik provides a story (Laal Andhi, or Crimson Storm) of horrors from Pakistan, linking uncanny events with the real violence of terrorism, where macabre events from childhood end up imprinting damage on a young boy leading him to senseless and hopeless conflagration in the future.
A satisfying collection that would particularly fit reading in situations (beyond Halloween time) like a summer camping trip, Truth or Dare features a really good idea with the game as a theme for the horror genre. Even if Booth’s collection fails to make a cohesive narrative taken all together, it succeeds well in providing a range of tales that horror fans would enjoy and perhaps some new authors to discover.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

DANGEROUS GAMES, Edited by Jonathan Oliver

21412123Dangerous Games
Edited by Jonathan Oliver
Solaris Books – 2nd December 2014
ISBN 9781781082683  – 320 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig
“The Yellow Door”, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Die”, by Lavie Tidhar
“Chrysalises”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“South Mountain”, by Paul Kearney
“The Game Changer”, by Libby McGugan
“Distinguishing Characteristics”, by Yoon Ha Lee
“Captain Zzapp!!! – Space Hero from 3000 AD”, by Gary Northfield (Comic)
“Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem
“The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan
“Honourable Mention”, by Tade Thompson
“Loser”, by Rebecca Levene
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, by Ivo Stourton
“Ready or Not”, by Gary McMahon
“The Monogamy of Wild Beasts”, by Robert Shearman
“The Stranger Cards”, by Nik Vincent
“All Things Fall Apart and Are Built Again”, by Helen Marshall
“Lefty Plays Bridge”, by Pat Cadigan

 Among the short story collections that I’ve read recently, Dangerous Games was unfortunately one that I enjoyed less. While certainly not a poor showing, I personally found most of the stories going in styles or directions that simply weren’t my favorite. This may be from the luck of the draw. I don’t love everything and in the game of collection readings there are going to be some that just don’t fit. It may also arise from the theme of the title, which limits the stories somewhat, where most fit into the description literally with characters in some dire scenario of competition. There is less here of internal struggle than one might find in a general collection or with another given theme.
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig opens the book with a story that was a superb choice for lead-off hitter. It sets the tone with a bit of darkness to accompany that ‘danger’ and presents a present day horror without flowery adornment with a very readable voice. It also introduces a common theme of making circumstances of the horror/fantasy open to reader interpretation.
While I enjoyed this start well enough the next series of stories made it more difficult for me to get into things. Lovecraftian stories (like Moreno-Garcia’s) elude me, perhaps I really just need to take the time and read some of his classic works. Lavie Tidhar is an author who I find hit or miss, and here the miss arises from a similar sense of the story not packing enough of a punch or depth despite well handled language; similarly, Sriduandkaew at times connects, but I often get lost in her dense word spinning web. This one (or duo of tales) just confused me despite reading twice.
This trend of the stories being okay but not really resonating with me in terms of the plot, action, or underlying theme continued through the comic by Northfield and beyond. I cannot comment at all on “Captain Zzapp…” at all. An eReader is simply useless to me for being able to resolve a comic’s panels or text.
Eventually I came to a pair of stories I really did adore, “Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem and “The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan. These each had a strong sinister factor mixed with underlying themes/character psychology that connected with me, mental health in the case of addiction in the case of the former, and sacrifice/servitude in the latter. “Loser” which follows soon after had a similar dark tone with strong characterization to deal with a troubling subject that I found impressive.
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, a spin on Russian Roulette, no pun intended 🙂 was the one more literal take on a game that kept me fully interested in as a tale, mostly because I was eager to see how it turned out. And as I enjoyed her Gifts for the One Who Comes After, I loved the mystique and mood of Helen Marshall’s story. However, while I loved the style and feel of the words on my brain, the plot left less of a mark as notable.
And that situation is somewhat emblematic of many of the other stories here, there may have been an elements that I enjoyed, but other aspects of the given work failed to engage me and that one aspect that hit just wasn’t strong enough to carry everything. In the end your reaction to this, like many collections will come down to personal preference and is harder to predict. But if the theme of Dangerous Games sounds interesting to you and you know a large chunk of these authors as ones you’ve liked before then it’s worth a try.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.