Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Book Review: Kthulu Reich by Ken Asamatsu, Jim Rion (Translator)

Kthulu Reich by Ken Asamatsu, Jim Rion (Translator)

Paperback, 252 pages

Published 2019 by Kurodahan Press

I am not sure how many times I have read a Kurodahan Press release but this is my second time reading the Japanese Lovecraftian master Ken Asmatsu. I could be wrong but from all the biographical material I have read, it seems he is the foremost Lovecraft nerd on the island of Japan. I get this picture in my head of him leading Cthulu prayer breakfasts in Japan. The guy is clearly an expert on all things Lovecraft. What I really enjoyed about his novel Queen of K'n-Yan is it took the mythos and filtered it through a very Japanese cultural filter.

Queen of K'n-Yan really is a must read, I mention that book because I never really stopped thinking about that Mummy meets mythos novel since I read it in 2011. that book also was clearly influenced by Clive Barker as well as the Resident Evil games. These Ken Asmatsu books are a textbook example of why we need a healthy and thriving small press. Kurodahan press has translated and provided a book that no major publisher in New York would bother to give but it is an important and fun book none the less.

So that brings me to Kthulu Reich. It was important for me to lead with my respect for the press and the author since I got to be honest and admit I was not super into this book. I liked it, I mean three stars is a positive review but I didn't LOVE it like I did the last one.

Let us start with the cover. Kurodahan Press books have always come with beautiful covers. I found the art on this cover to be simple and cheezy. It looked like a Lovecraftian monster was cut and pasted on to a tank. Now you can't judge a book by the cover and certainly, I wouldn't discount a book for bad art. That said pretty cover doesn't hurt and that is what I had come to expect.

Kthulu Reich as book confused me a little the back cover describes it as a "fantastic novel of the War, the Cthulhu Mythos, and humanity trapped in the middle." when you look in the cover the table of contents has seven titles with original copyrights between 1994 and 1999. How I review collections and novels are very different, how I read them are little different. This might not affect other readers as much as it did me. As novel has to flow and a collection can have ups and downs.

Certainly this can we read as one connecting story but certain stories worked better for me than others. In the middle of the book was a chapter/ or a story called in the Wasteland of Madness. This tale was connected almost a WW II men on a mission sequel to the Classic At the Mountains of Madness. I really enjoyed the Feast for the Children of the Night which was a traditional vampire tale. As a whole, the book ties Nazi occultism to the mythos not only of Lovecraft but traditional horror monsters.

That is a neat concept and has some really cool moments of execution. I would suggest Queen of K'n-Yan which I feel to be a much deeper experience which showcases the power of Japanese genre fiction. Kthulu Reich is fun, a cool read but I have read lots of native English language novels and seen plenty of movies with the Nazi occult angle. When I opened this book I was hoping for a more unique Japanese experience.

Kthulu Reich is a short and fun read. I can't stress FUN enough. I think it is important that Ken is translated into English. In that sense every book Kurodahan Press releases is important. Not every American horror book is a masterpiece but they all deserve to read. I am glad I read it, and I hope others will buy books from and support the mission of Kurodahan Press.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Book Review: The Wanderer by Fritz Lieber (Podcast episode soon)

The Wanderer by Fritz Lieber

Paperback, 348 pages

Published December 2001 by Gollancz (first published 1964)

Hugo Award for Best Novel (1965)

So the reason I read this novel is pretty simple. Accidently I had recorded Three episodes of Dickheads about winners of best novel in Hugos from the sixties. Starship Troopers (1960) and Man in The High Castle (1963) are available and Stand on Zanzibar (1969) is recorded to be released later. Once I realized I had three of them I decided before the end of 2019 I wanted to record bonus episodes of Dickheads about all the 60's Hugo best novels of the year. So eventually There will be an episode of the podcast featuring author Edward Morris (Blackguard series and my Flesh Trade Co-author).

Until then here is my quick review. On the surface, this novel is an absolute bananas science fiction novel that was hit or miss reading experience for me. When I recount the totally bizarro insanity of the plot it sounds way better than the book I read. However, there were lots of cool ideas and moments. Many of which we will dive into more seriously on the podcast. I know that if I talk about this book and the themes I will convince myself that it was better than it actually was.

The book is one story told through many points of view, but the various windows into the tale create two very different feels. All the stuff on earth feels like a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich disaster movie, while the stuff in space feels cosmic on a scale that is super weird. I like the space stuff much more in this book.

This book has more plots than a cemetery, and with 15 story threads, you would think that at least a couple of the characters might be interesting? Nah, not really. A few years after John Brunner lost the Hugo to this novel he actually used this method in a genius way in Stand on Zanzibar. In this novel, the methods fails to paint as vast picture of another world it just creates a mess that is hard to follow.

I didn't know until after I read this that the internet is filled with articles asking how the hell this book won the Hugo award. While there were other authors of respect nominated that year in Cordwainer Smith and Brunner none of the titles nominated that year are classics. Rough year. Most of the other winners in a given year and many of the nominees are classics that are remembered by any serious nerd of the field.

The story is an interesting one. A Planet suddenly appears in between the moon and earth, this is a death star like artificial planet filled with super-intelligent cat ladies who are on the run from galactic forces who want those to conform to their civilizations high standards. They come to earth because they have spent all their fuel living in hyperspace and our moon is just the raw materials they need. When they start crushing our moon up it sets off tidal forces and earthquakes.

I think Lieber was doing his 1964 best to be hard sci-fi but how realistic do you want your sci-fi when one of your characters falls in love after hooking up with an intergalactic anarchist cat-lady? Honestly, for me, the stuff on the Wanderer with the very cosmic ideas is where the book is interesting. The disaster porn while conceived to show off how unimportant and small humans are to the greater universe is well-intentioned but a fucking mess.

Goddamn it I wanted to like this book. When I talk about or recount it, it sounds cooler than it actually is. That said I am glad I read it. It is interesting to imagine this novel as it is happening. Fritz Lieber was my grandfather's age. He was already a pretty old grandmaster when this was written. You can really tell in some of the moments when the character is trying to do hip young people things. In that sense, this feels like a '50s, not sixties novel. I mean this is the decade when Stranger in a Strange Land, Man in the High Castle and plenty of classics came out. Really 1965 is this the best you got?

Book Review: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Paperback, 464 pages

Published June 2015 by Mulholland Books (first published July 31st 2014)

Shirley Jackson Award Nominee for Novel (2014)

Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Horror (2014)

This is Horror Award Nominee for Novel (2014)

Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Nominee for Longlist (2015)

ITW Award Nominee for Best Novel (2015)

It is funny when I picked up this book at the bookstore I had mistaken this author for someone else. It was not the book I intended to get and in a funny stroke of luck the day after I finished it a great interview with the author came across my podcast feed. That would be the This is Horror podcast. I recommend that interview by the way.

So I picked up Broken Monsters by mistake but this supernatural horror crime thriller set in Detroit was right up my alley. Lauren Beukes is a South African novelist and perhaps the most impressive thing here is I would have thought she was from Detroit. I mean my experience with the city is confined mostly to visiting for hardcore shows when I lived in Indiana but it seemed like she knew the city well. It is clear that besides her storytelling and prose chops that she is a detail-oriented author who does intense research.

The best way I describe this novel is feeling a little like a season of True Detective meets James Ellroy in the sense that it feels like the novel is putting a magnifying glass on a moment of urban decadence. Ellory tends to highlight how criminals buzz LA like flies on shit, this novel does the same for the post-automotive Detroit that in a bizarre moment of urban flight. You can be assured that this a fascinating setting for a serial killer novel with hints of the supernatural.

Broken Monsters has two main point of view characters in Detective Gabriella Versado and her daughter Layla. While the majority of the novel centers on then there is a full cast of characters who get their third person narrative moments woven excellently into the plot. Characters like journalist turned Vlogger Jonno and his younger DJ hook-up turned girlfriend and recovery addict TK. These may sound like side characters but TK and Jonno are richly drawn enough characters that they could've carried a novel to themselves. Maybe not this novel but they play important roles.

The story centers around the discovery of a dead boy whose corpse was sown or glued to the body of a dead deer. Detective Verado has to deal with the demands of the investigation while her daughter gets into trouble that of course is tied to the overall story. The story is interesting but in the end, I didn't find it to be that compelling. We have seen this kind of mystery many times before. What makes the book work is the voice of the author and the strength of the characters.

It is well paced with plenty of reveals to keep you interested in the details. There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments of suspense through-out but those were less appealing to me than the setting. I was very impressed and think I will have to read all the other novels Beukes has written and in that sense, I can't give a higher compliment.

Was it perfect? No hardly. I found Junno as a character had a weird arc and by the end of the book, he was behaving in a way that didn't make sense with the character I met in the early pages. TK was introduced with a very effective chapter that introduced him trying to track down his homeless Ex who was raising their child in a car. I felt this thread was introduced and forgotten.

Those are minor problems and weighed against the good moments I found Broken Monsters to be a revelation. I read quickly because the voice was so strong. Lauren Beukes is a talented story teller and I feel glad I accidentally picked up her book. Oh yeah here is the This Is Horror interview:

https://www.thisishorror.co.uk/tih-284-lauren-beukes-on-crime-and-horror-fiction-south-africa-and-creative-writing-ma/

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Book Review: She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin

She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin

Paperback, 258 pages

Published August 2017 by Word Horde

I first noticed Nadia Balkin with her stand-out story in A World Of Horror edited by Eric J Guignard which Anthony and I reviewed on youtube, and we were both impressed by Balkin's story. You can listen to that review here:

I read stand-out stories in anthologies all the time but that is not the reason I ran to Amazon to order this collection. It was the fact that she was published by Word Horde and given the publication by Word Horde editor Ross Lockhart whose opinion I trust, I decided I had to read this. I am super glad I did.

Nadia Bulkin is a writer with massive talent and finely honed skills. Her stories are perfectly tuned and there is hardly a wasted word. The last short story collection I read and reviewed was the newest from Brian Evenson who I consider to be one of the best writers alive. This might sound like hyperbole for an author with a first collection but hot damn she is that good, very close to that level.

The stories are all weird fiction the levels of horror and Lovecraftian-ness vary at times but they are worth reading. Like any collection, I had favorites and stand-outs. Since Bulkin spent a good part of her childhood in Indonesia this influences many of her stories in a positive way. The opening story Intertropical Convergence Zone was a stand-out in this regard. This dark tale of a third world General is a great example of a story that only THIS writer could've written. Those to me are the best short stories that tend rise above the rest.

Another favorite for me was Only Unity Saves the Damned. This is a very weird story about teens hoping to go viral with a prank video that accidentally catches something unexplainable. The story Girl, I Love You was a very haunting tale that touched me the most on an emotional level. I also liked the cosmic nature and big ideas of the last story No Gods, No Masters. There was a beautiful paragraph in that story that highlighted how Balkin balances weird and beautiful.

This is a must read that I can't recommend enough. I really want to read a longer work by Bulkin and I hope a novel is in our future.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Hardcover, 531 pages

Published September 2013 by Scribner

Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel (2013)

Locus Award Nominee for Best Fantasy Novel (2014)

ITW Thriller Award Nominee for Best Hardcover Novel (2014)

Audie Award for Fiction (2014)

Goodreads Choice Award for Horror (2013)

This is Horror Award for Novel (2013)

Well, I reviewed this novel the year it came out and it is tempting to go back and look at what I said, but I am not going to do that. My first experience with this book was listening to an audiobook. At the time that was the quickest way to get it from the library, and I couldn't afford to drop $30 bucks. This experience might have put me off audio books forever as I retained very little of the story.

This time I read the paperback in the most ideal of situations. A flight from Indiana to San Diego. This meant despite the 640 pages of mass market paperback I was able to digest the first half of this massive book in one sitting stuffed next to a snoring married couple on a southwest airlines plane.

I have been hit or miss with Stephen King. I am a huge fan of the person and the industry that is Stephen King. I have massive respect for him, but I am not the biggest fan of his novels in this century. Most of my favorites include The Dead Zone, The Shining and The Stand. I have liked some of his 21st-century output like Bag of Bones and most of all I loved his four novella collection Full Dark No stars. That said many of the last few novels like The Outsider just didn't work for me. As brilliant as King is he can't put out that many books without a few stinkers.

That said Doctor Sleep to me is his best work since this century took over. The stakes have not been this high for King since early in his career with exception of maybe The Dark Tower sequels. SK has been aware that many of his readers would buy the phone book if his name was on it. There has not been much fall-out for the books that were less well received. Being that he was writing a sequel to one of his most beloved books The Shining after decades it was quite a risk. No one would be surprised if he didn't do it and when the rumors slipped out that he was working on it the excitement level was huge.

I am not sure everyone felt that Doctor Sleep was a worthy sequel or a good answer to what became of Dan Torrance after surviving the events of the book. I for one thought it was perfect. On the surface, The Shining is a Haunted House novel but it is equally about alcoholism. Doctor Sleep is a worthy sequel because it is on the surface it is a monster novel but it is equally about recovery. The parallels to the author's life are obvious and the key to what makes this novel a powerful and logical follow up.

There are almost two novels here and it is possible that SK could have split this into a trilogy. The first half is a creepy but subtle tale of Dan's recovery and follows him working as an orderly at a hospice. There are excellent and heartbreaking moments where Dan reaches rock bottom and then we see him use his shine to comfort the dying. Some of these moments are the most affecting of the novel. I really felt for the characters who at the end of a long life get visits from a cat (who always knows when someone is about to die) and provides Dan the knowledge to help the dying to Sleep. To me, this could've been a novel itself.

The second half is where the monsters get involved. Dan connects with a young woman strong in the shine. He fulfills his promise to Dick Holleran to return the favor of mentoring a young person with the shine. She has accidentally caught the attention of a tribe of monsters who steal the "steam" or lifeforce of those with the shine to never die and stay young. While this part was not as powerful to me I enjoyed every page of it. It was also more connected to the events or at least the locations of the Shining and thus made this novel really work.

With the release of the Doctor Sleep Trailer (I saw it when I was 435 pages into it), there were are many "hot" takes. Most of which I found interesting but disagreed with. Many SK Constant readers seem to object that the movie is a sequel to the Kubrick movie and not the book. I think this is silly. The King novel is the sequel to the novel. It makes creative and commercial sense to make the film a sequel to the film. Keep in mind I prefer the novel, and actually think the Kubrick movie is over-rated. None the less I would do the same if I was making a Doctor Sleep movie.

I saw a tweet that said this was insulting to King and his readers. Really? Come on. That is as silly to me as the tweet I saw saying director Mike Flanagan was brave for connecting it to the film? What? Nothing brave about making the smartest commercial decsion. I listened to the director on a Q and A and he said they had to go with the end of the film. SK approved Flanagan going with sequelizing the movie it appears.

Doctor Sleep is a true masterpiece as a stand-alone novel, and as a sequel. I think it is the best novel SK has done in decades.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Book Review:Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Paperback, 240 pages

Expected publication: June 11th 2019 by Coffee House Press

Maybe this is not the most appropriate time to write an elegy for a writer but hear me out. I know we have lots and lots of years left of Brian Evenson stories but last week we lost Dennis Etchison. If you are not familiar with Dennis he was a writer who despite a few novels, screenplays, and radio dramas was an absolute master of short horror fiction. As a short story writer few reached the level of balancing creepy, delusional and paranoid scares that Dennis Etchison did with 10 or so pages. All with a level of literary prose that is equal to the strength of writers in any genre.

This collection like Evenson’s last "A Collapse of Horses" gives me that same feeling that Dennis did. There is rare company at this level of quality. Song for the Unraveling of the World is a truly and deeply amazing collection of horror that has every right to be shelved in the same section of the bookstore as Clive Barker and David Foster Wallace, Ursula Leguin and Louise Erdrich. He is that freaking good.

This book features just over a dozen short stories, there are certainly a few that stand out as stronger than others but there are no stinkers in the bunch. Not every collection can boast like that. If forced to explain what makes this collection different from his Collapse of Horses (which has my favorite Evenson story "Any Corpse")it is the the surreal nature of the stories. Evenson is always weird but in this collection he is using words to warp reality on almost every page. Sometimes it is subtle, other times it is jaw dropping, but always done with beautiful razor sharp prose.

My favorite stories in this collection play with themes of false skin and go closer to more straight forward sci-fi by going into space. The Story "Smear" is a fantastic sci-fi horror story that has one of the most subtle yet scary monsters I can recall. The monster was just a feeling, fleeting something just beyond sight, but goddamn did it creep me out. "The Lord of Vats" might be my absolute favorite this super PKD style sci-fi story is one of the coolest and creepy takes on hypersleep I have ever read. In the short page count this story explores what is reality?, what is human? All that and it has a great reversal.

On the straight horror side I loved "Sisters", "The Tower", the title story and the entry from the Lost Films Anthology "Lather of Flies." Sisters is a great Halloween story but don't mistake that for a traditional horror story. I struggle with even trying to describe that one. The Tower is a cool post apocalyptic story, and the title story has some of the most unsettling moments of character paranoia and delusion in a book filled with that feeling.

Evenson has quickly become one of my favorite working authors, and his work is a must read, I mean all of it. I read a few of these before they were collected. There is something about reading Evenson stories collected. I hang on every word, each story is strong. If you are not reading Evenson you are missing one of the best weird fiction voices.

Thank you Coffee House Press for giving me an arc, keep your eyes peeled for Brian Returning to the Dickheads Podcast, in the mean time you can look up the interview we did with him about his fantastic novella The Warren.

Book Review: Soft Invasions by James Reich

Soft Invasions by James Reich

Paperback, 150 pages

Published December 2017 by Anti-Oedipus Press

I read my first James Reich novel earlier this year shortly after recording a bonus episode of The Dickheads podcast with him about Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo, a book we both love. I was not super familiar with JR’s work before that point. His novel The Song My Enemies Sing quickly became one of my top reads of the year. This book had been on my radar since it came out as I always thought it sounded incredible.

The back of the book calls for it to be marketed as “Literary Fiction” and rightfully so. It is so much more than that in fact I would consider it to be alternate history, paranoid multi-verse science fiction with hints of horror in all the other super weird moments. Meta-old timey Hollywood mixes with counterfactual Japanese bombing air raids of California, UFO abductions and the battle of the Midway.

In 140 short pages of elegantly surreal prose James Reich gets wibbley wobbly with space-time and reality and creates a one of a kind reading experience. It is perfect for anyone looking for something that gets on the level of weird that PKD and Malzberg reached when they chained them selves to their typewriters in the 60’s and 70’s and pumped out dozens upon dozens of mindfucks wrapped in pulp covers.

Sure it is literary fiction but lets be clear PKD always was lit fiction long before the establishment pulled their head out of their asses and realized it was more than JUST sci-fi. This book is Science Fiction, Horror and psychedelic mind-fuckery strained through straight up beautiful prose. Hyperbole aside James Reich is great. The story has multiple characters and the narrative goes back and forth between times and realities. Readers who want everything to make easy sense, and have everything explained perfectly should keep looking for another book. I always trusted that Reich knew what he was doing.

We mostly follow Max McKinney, his wife Joan and his son George. But we also get to know Hollywood screenwriter Sid Starr. George is at war, Max is a psychoanalyst whose many patients are feeding drama to Sidd. Along the way reality comes down and the war comes home. Some of the chapters about the Japanese planes over Los Angeles were as haunting as anything I read this year. With perfectly executed sentences Reich reached almost mystical level of unreality that left this reader wonderfully stunned. I am sure there were elements and levels working in this novel that flew over my head but damn it was great. I would read this again for sure.

I loved this book. Sign me up for anything James Reich wants to gift to this reality.