Reading Rich Hawkins’ novella, Black Star, Black Sun, is a bit like waking up and finding the world has already been consumed by fire, and the final embers are burning the ashen remains. It is a fearless journey into an abyss of despair.
Why would anyone want to read that? Because it’s hauntingly beautiful.
We begin with Ben Ottway returning to his hometown, a small village in England, after the mysterious disappearance of his wife, but this is no thriller with plot twists you can see coming a mile away or that are surprising because they’re utter nonsense. Ben’s wife is gone, and the point is his world has ended, yet he fights it and remains hopeful.
It’s been almost a month since I put The King of Clayfield by Shane Gregory down, and it’s lingered with me all this time. I don’t attribute its staying power to any raw emotional experience I had with it, nor do I find its relentless grip in any particular shock or horror. The King of Clayfield sticks with me to this day because I’ve yet to be able to truly pin it down. Certain stories fall clearly within a genre, adhering to established guidelines and rules. The King of Clayfield is somewhat unique in that it flows naturally, as if it were grounded in reality instead of someone’s imagination.
Of course, The King of Clayfield has many imaginative and creative elements, but while it isn’t strictly an epistolary, it reads almost like a journal. Shane’s prose is no-nonsense, written in natural language. At times, it may be reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. He steps out of the way and lets his character tell the story. What’s notable here is that, in my experience with first-person narratives, I’ve found many writers tend to overdo this. They adopt certain tendencies to attempt to force the voice through. Shane doesn’t. The difference is he seems to trust his story and his characters to be interesting rather than trying to make or contrive intrigue. Continue reading
Amid personal distractions, big events, work, and other happenings, I didn’t get to read as much in 2014 as I would have liked. But I did read some really good books that I connected with in ways that either surprised me or continue to affect me. Please note, I read some really good stuff this year, and these are just the books that struck a personal nerve.
Without further ado, here are my favorite novels that I read in 2014.
When I picked up Autumn Moon by Slade Grayson, I was excited because I couldn’t remember the last time I had read a werewolf novel that I enjoyed. Autumn Moon is enjoyable, satisfying, and so much more. It contains a world full of almost-magical intrigue and allure and a narrative that keeps moving logically and naturally to a fulfilling conclusion.
I think the thing I appreciated most about Autumn Moon is it seems self-aware. I’ve come to this novel with the knowledge that it will contain werewolves, and Slade never is coy with that idea. It might seem disingenuous to treat the revelation of the shapeshifters as some great mystery, and while there is a moderate surprise, it isn’t overdone. Mainly, it seems to be for the characters’ benefit, not for ours, a case of dramatic irony that is handled expertly.
When I finished Deep Black Sea, I found myself dwelling on its strengths. Of course, not many works are without faults, but there are some really powerful elements here that I found creative, interesting, and entertaining.
One of Deep Black Sea’s greatest strengths is its foundation of plausibility. In a nutshell, the United States elects a new president who effectively guts NASA’s funding for a mission to Mars in favor of pursuing deep-water research. While such a broad and far-reaching decree in a democratic society is unlikely, it isn’t an unfamiliar point of consternation in the scientific community: the idea that we should understand our own planet before we explore others, and we still know so little about life at the bottom of the ocean. Continue reading
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the precise moment when Rich Hawkins’ work in The Last Plague won me over, but I know it came within the first fifty pages.
If you took Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and slammed it into 28 Days Later and then opened a trans-dimensional gateway for Cthulu to join the party, you might end up with something like The Last Plague. It begins like any other modern horror story in that we’re presented with a group of friends who go off for a weekend of fun. The difference here is they aren’t going off into the unknown where evil awaits. While they are gone, the world changes, and when they return to it, they find the aftermath of the initial wave of an infection.
The pitch for Joe Hill’s Horns is almost too coy. One morning, Ignatius Perrish wakes to find he has grown horns. Weird. It’s this one strange development that’s supposed to pull you in with mystery, and going into it, I worried it would be a bit too hokey. Having only read Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box before, I just wasn’t sure what kind of mileage was there, and I worried it would flounder and ultimately be unsatisfying. But as I read Horns, I decided this focus on Ig’s sudden and inexplicable “mutation” was deliberate, like a sleight of hand from a magician. Where as Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is a genuinely good supernatural thriller, Horns brings something entirely new to fiction, and it’s an interesting mixture of the horror and thriller genres.
Despite what you may read elsewhere, Suffer the Children is not a novel about vampires. In a strict sense, there is little in the way of monsters. Compared to Craig DiLouie’s earlier work, there are significantly fewer zombies and bullets, less blood mist and cordite in the air. The action is subdued. Your ears will not ring from explosive charges. But there’s a lot of heart. You can all but feel it thump as you turn the page (or press the e-reader button).
Where Suffer the Children distinguishes itself is not in attempting to recreate or contrive a monster myth, which is something many authors are trying to do these days because the prevailing thought is that doing so is the key to success. In fact, Suffer the Children succeeds in innovating a classic monster myth. And it surely is interesting, but what makes it truly intriguing is that Suffer the Children is about the *people* first. This is something that makes Craig DiLouie somewhat of an exception in the horror genre. His books aren’t about zombies. They aren’t about vampires. If there are monsters in his novels, they are the monsters *within* the people that are expertly and lovingly conceived. He makes you sympathize with and fall in love with his characters. Many of them have humanizing and redeeming qualities. And when he’s finished showing you these people and what makes them as intriguing and sympathetic as a friend or even a sibling, when he’s dug his author pen into your chest, piercing your still-beating heart, that’s when he twists it.
The idea of a viral outbreak isn’t exactly new, but The Flu by Jaqueline Druga is anything but typical. It maintains a level of distinction even beyond the apocalyptic and outbreak thriller genres.
A particularly deadly strain of the flu escapes a facility in Alaska, and by chance and relayed through expertly executed dramatic irony, the virus makes it to Barrow. Then it hitches a ride with a journalist to LA, and well, you know how this goes. Druga spares us an attempt at building suspense through being coy here. We know there’s an outbreak, and she spends only enough time to set it up and make it feel legitimate and authentic without feeling tiring or exhaustive.
For a post-apocalyptic zombie novel that is set after the zombies have won and humanity isn’t just trying to survive but salvage some kind of lower existence, Tankbread would seem to present a story with nowhere left to go but into a bleak future; humanity has no existence left to fill except to serve the upper class, now comprised of zombies that have managed to sustain themselves and elevate their intelligence to near full capacity by feeding regularly on human stem cells. In this vein, Tankbread presents an interesting comment on class in our present, not-yet-apocalyptic society.
The story begins with a courier that remains unnamed throughout. He is being patronized by an evol, one of the upper class of zombies that is intelligent enough to lead. The courier’s charge is to go to the Sydney Opera House, where some of the last of humanity have set up a protected community, and pick up a package. There we learn the secrets of Tankbread and the morally questionable pact humanity has made with the evols for survival. Essentially, Tankbread are human clones the surviving humans create to feed the evols in exchange for an agreement that they will leave the humans in the protected communities alone. As the courier is learning all of this, feeling safe in this Australian landmark, the Opera House is attacked, but the courier escapes with a Tankbread he later names Else and a charge to get her to a research facility across the country.