My duties as a 2014 Sunburst Awards juror all but complete, I can finally get back to plowing through the the immense stack of books I’ve accumulated in the interim, most of which, I’m sure, will make themselves known when the 2015 Sunburst Awards come about. What can I say? I love me some genre.
So what, pray tell, have I been reading lately?
Nick Cutter, The Deep (Simon & Schuster), The Acolyte (ChiZine)
Nick Cutter (the barely secret pseudonym of Canadian novelist Craig Davidson) is on a real tear. Three novels out in less than a year, and two (after 2014’s superbly gruesome The Troop) released mere months apart. And more unlike the pair could not be; The Deep is a straight-up dose of nightmare fuel, while The Acolyte is a hardboiled swipe at the dangers of religious fundamentalism (methinks not for nothing is the terrifying-yet-somehow-morally-acceptable Deep released by a big publisher while the daring, morally incendiary Acolyte is the work of an independent).
Deep concerns a small cadre of individuals confined together at the bottom of the ocean, seeking a potential cure for a planet-wide epidemic known as the ‘Gets. Of course, as conflict is the essence of all drama, it doesn’t take long for things to go seriously awry, and the Michael Crichton-esque scientific set-up flips to a claustrophobic terror treat. Characters turn on each other, psyches crack open, paranoia becomes a character unto itself, and something deeply weird lurks around every corner.
The Acolyte, by complete contrast, is pure film noir, a mystery set in a dystopian Christian theocracy where any deviation from the Bible is illegal, to the point where using common police forensic techniques is heretical because such methods also prove the existence of dinosaurs and the like. You know; the sort of repressive, right-wing society that Ted Cruz has wet dreams about. Detective (or “Acolyte”) Jonah Murtag is beginning to find his job of eradicating all heretical religious faiths, their practitioners, and artefacts, is taking its toil on his psyche. As he investigates a string of bombings that threaten the underpinnings of this repressive world, he is also faced with the eroding of his own faith.
Both novels share Cutter’s gift for strong characters and fantastic situations rooted in realism, but beyond that they could be written by different people altogether. Of the duo, Acolyte‘s gripping blend of noir and Fahrenheit 541-esque paranoia runs more to my tastes — what can I say? I’m a romantic — but both are spectacular examples of imagination run riot. Whether you’re trapped in the end-of-the-world underwater mad scientist scenario of Deep or the so-close-to-happening theocracy of Acolyte, you’re in for a freakin’ memorable time (as far as these types of books go).
Robert Repino, Mort(e) (Soho Press)
I confess a weird place in my heart for unabashedly adult tales of anthopomorphic happenings (see: The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Amberville, Winkie, Dr. Rat, Firmin, The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse…love them all, can’t be a coincidence). So perhaps I’m predisposed to unconditionally adore Mort(e)‘s tale of giant ants wiping out humanity with the help of gun-toting, hyper-intelligent animals.
Luckily for me, Repino is a fabulous storyteller in full William Kotzwinkle mode, and his story within the war — that of the warrior cat Mort(e) (formerly Sebastian) seeking to reunite with the golden retriever who was his only friend (pre-evolution) — is by turns touching, funny, sad, and relatable. It’s a brilliant concept, brilliantly told.
Another thinly-veiled pseudonym! Author Peter Roman (really, Canadian author Peter Darbyshire) returns to the fantastical exploits of Cross, a desolate immortal trapped in the undying body left behind by Jesus Christ. The Dead Hamlets finds the former thief/current angel-slayer unwilling roped into detective work for the Faerie Queen, looking for a killer with supernatural ties to the work of William Shakespeare. Like the first, Roman heedlessly mangles history in the funhouse mirror of his mind, all to suit his twisted purpose; playwright Christopher Marlowe is an undead demon hunter, Alice (the Wonderland one) is a playfully warped trickster, Shakespeare himself is a supernatural force…you get the general idea. It’s all glorious fun, a blasphemously good time, a sacrelicious treat. The adventures of Cross (begun in The Mona Lisa Sacrifice) could easily continue for years; here’s hoping they’re all as much fun.
Kenneth Mark Hoover, Haxan (ChiZine Publications)
I’m not a huge reader of westerns. I’ve loved the Larry McMurtry Lonesome Dove quartet, and I’ve suffered through the dregs of Chuck Norris’ literary Syrup of Ipecac The Justice Riders, so I figured I’d gone about as high and low as one can in the genre. But I do love all things ChiZine, so I gave Haxan a shot. Lucky, lucky me.
John T. Marwood is a man only a name change away from classic “man with no name” status. The new marshal of the town of Haxan, New Mexico, Marwood is a taciturn gunslinger with a past as murky as a dust storm. Tasked with keeping the peace, Marwood soon discovers the town is as brutal a place as any he has encountered. Throughout the pages, Hoover dollops out hints on Marwood’s shady past (hints I hope to be resolved in future entries in the series), but he takes great pains to keep his anti-hero as dark a soul as his enemies. There are also the inklings of a supernatural mysticism that heightens Marwood’s every decision. Haxan is not a genteel examination of the West; it’s a mean, vicious, bloody, profane look at hard people living hard times. Not for nothing has it been described as “Lonesome Dove meets The Punisher.” But goddamn is it a good read.
Clive Barker, The Scarlet Gospels (St. Martin’s Press)
In 2007, while pushing my debut novel Shelf Monkey, I met the acclaimed British fantasist Clive Barker briefly at a signing (for his books, not mine). There, I begged him to hurry up and finish his long-awaited The Scarlet Gospels, a return to the early horrors of his classic The Hellbound Heart(more commonly known by its film title, Hellraiser). Well, I must have made an impact on the man, because here we are, only eight short years later, and the gory return of his immortal character Pinhead is sitting on bookstore shelves.
You’re welcome, world.
After filmmakers stretched the Hellraiser concept to the breaking point (do not bother with any sequel past number five), Barker revisits the his sadomasochistic demon, rescuing him from his current cinematic status as a poor man’s Fred Krueger. It seems the cenobite has been busy, breaking into our world to slay any and all magicians he can find. Pitted against him is another Barker character, Harry D’Amour, the world-weary detective of Everville and Lord of Illusions, continually at war with the supernatural forces that surround him. As the chase travels from our world to the literal pits of Hell, you can feel the old Barker at work, combing gore, puns, and literate style with glee. It’s not quite a perfect return to the genre; it never reaches the heights of pure horror Barker hit with Hellbound Heart and Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3, and it loses a little steam the more fantastical it becomes. It’s still a vastly fun trek, though, as D’Amour and his companions battle demons, spout magical gibberish, and follow the steps of Pinhead up to the throne of Lucifer. And for a fan, it’s a true pleasure to revel in Barker’s imagination once again and learn of the ultimate fate of his most famous creation.
Soon to come up on the mountain o’ goodness: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise, Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp, Adam Schroeder’s All-Day Breakfast, Rio Youer’s Point Hollow, Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming