Friday, February 17, 2017

The Darkness (2016)

Can’t recommend this one. I wanted to like it, especially since it began with a family vacation at the Grand Canyon, and I’d love to see more horror films utilizing southwest mythology, the canyon, and Anasazi ruins. The early scenes could have been as eerie as Picnic at Hanging Rock. But the setting only functioned as a starting point and the rest of the action took place inside the home of a white suburban family. From this point on, it’s pretty much by rote.

Dad (Kevin Bacon, with the same hair he had in Footloose) works too much. Mom (Radha Mitchell) struggles with a drinking problem. Their teenage daughter’s bulimic and snarky. Their son is autistic and is used rather badly in the story as a magnet for the supernatural. We’re told as much by the Internet, where we get all the exposition about the Anasazi, demons, some rocks stolen by the son while on vacation…way too much time spent staring at computer screens.

To save their son the parents consult a medium, and introduce another familiar trope, the person of color who acts as a spiritual guide, aided by her translator granddaughter (yeah). The medium, Teresa, tries to cleanse the house of evil but instead finds evil squatting in a big hole behind the son’s bedroom wall. Very disconcerting to watch the medium divining this space by holding a couple of bent copper wires out in front of her breasts. But maybe that's just me. I'm a woman and you know what we're like.

Some stuff happens and people scream. Kevin Bacon saves his family by yanking his son out of the hole behind the wall, and declares that they’re all safe now. Which I guess also implies he will work shorter hours and Mom will get drunk less often.

Not the worst patchwork home-possession movie ever, just not inspired or very original. The same tropes could work if given a slight edge or a new spin. The movie's downfall is how predictably all of its elements play out.

And The Darkness may have been released in 2016 but it was clearly shot much earlier, judging by the age of its youngest actor. On that subject, it's obvious why The Darkness is streaming on Netflix right now. The son is played by David Mazouz, a.k.a. Gotham’s Little Batman, Bruce Wayne. And, as usual, Mazouz does a good job. Just not enough to elevate The Darkness above a C-.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Weird Tales of a Bangalorean by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

Weird Tales of a BangaloreanWeird Tales of a Bangalorean by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With this collection published by Dunhams Manor Press in 2013, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy has become one of my favorite writers not only of weird fiction but any fiction attempting to portray both the physical and spiritual adventure of existence.

Recently an acquaintance remarked that he'd read this slender volume of extraordinary tales in an afternoon. I don't know how he accomplished this. Every story in the book is so rich in detail and so layered with fascinating social history and acute observations, I needed a break after each one in order to step back and look more objectively at what I can only describe as an immersive reading experience.

Delicate interactions between cultures and generations characterize these stories. All the lives lived in the same spot carry equal weight. History is ongoing. Our activity and unanswered desires create an energy, and perhaps a portal. The latter idea is put forth explicitly in the final tale, almost but not quite too complete an explanation. Fortunately the author only touches upon it and then returns to a sense of the mysteriousness of the universe and human nature.

Some characters are transformed or transported by interactions with the supernatural. Others cling to a fantasy or a state of mind and become absorbed into the landscape. The magic involved is not conjured or sought out. It arises naturally from the juxtaposition of time, place, and people.

Traces of the past linger everywhere. Ghosts of characters from certain stories pass through other stories and add to the density of the background. The illusion created by such overlapping is a steadily accruing sense of the enormity and complexity of life and the ceaseless activity of humankind.

Myths rooted in specific places and histories connect with more widely recognized myths and legends but also convey the fortunes and personal disasters of individuals and families. To know the full story is to know how a local family made its way in a constantly shifting world.

I bought this wonderful book and I'll buy anything else Jayaprakash Satyamurthy writes. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Interview with Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter is the talented, prolific and acclaimed author of Sourdough and Other Stories, The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, Midnight and Moonshine (with Lisa L. Hannett), The Bitterwood Bible and Other RecountingsBlack-Winged Angels, and The Female Factory (with Lisa L. Hannett) (Forthcoming 2014). In this exclusive Shock Room interview, she talks about her most recently published collection, The Bitterwood Bible, her writing process, and some of her influences.

Where did you grow up, and how has the place where you lived as a child influenced your writing?

I grew up in several places. My Dad was a cop and so we moved around with his job. My sister and I were born in Cairns (in Tropical North Queensland); moved to Ipswich (a mining town in the south of the state) when we were three and one respectively; then out to Longreach (in the Australian outback) at nine and seven; back to Cairns at eleven and nine; and then back to Ipswich at fourteen and twelve. I’ve spent most of my adult life in Brisbane (capital city of Queensland), apart from a four year stint in Sydney.

What this gives me, I guess, is a really strong sense of home not being about a place necessarily, but about the people you’re with. One of my favourite Clive James quotes, which I shall paraphrase very poorly, is that like all those who’ve left home, I know it immediately when I find it again, no matter where that may happen to be. I think I’ve carried that idea around inside me for a very long time, and I think it’s an idea that comes through in my fiction, especially where I deal with characters who’ve been sundered from their homes and families. 

Where/ what was your first professional publication?

think my first acceptance was from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet for “The Juniper Tree” in 2006, but I also got an acceptance from Shimmer soon after for “The Little Match Girl”, and that story was published first.

Which fairy tales and short stories made a particularly strong impression on you, growing up, and stayed with you over the years?

As far as fairy tales are concerned, probably: “The Little Match Girl” for its cruelty and lack of justice; “Donkeyskin” for its ideas about having to hide who you were; “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” for ideas about devotion and self-sacrifice; “Bluebeard” for its ideas about injustice (again) and fortuitous timing; and “Fitcher’s Bird” for its clever female heroine.

As for short stories: “The Tower” by Marghanita Laski for its slow build of tension; “Gabriel Ernest” by Saki for its cleverness and subtle foreboding; “The Chosen Vessel” by Barbara Baynton for being recognisably set in a place I lived; and “The Wendigo’s Child” for scaring the poop out of me and keeping me awake many nights, listening in the dark.

What is your process when you work with a partner, and how is it different from your process when you work alone?

When I work alone, I’m probably as close as I ever get to lazy! With a collaborator, someone is relying on me and so I take that trust very seriously. I know I need to respect someone else’s schedule as much as I do my own. Honestly, even when it’s just me I’m pretty good and am a respecter of the deadline because an editor needs me to provide something by a certain time and I try my best to be professional.

When I’m collaborating (with Lisa L. Hannett), our first drafts are brain vomit. Whoever has the spark of an idea starts the story, vomits on the page until they’re empty, then sends that unfiltered brown stuff off. Then the receiver reads the brown stuff, gives it a bit of an edit, then adds new unfiltered brown stuff and sends it off. Then we go back and forth until there’s a full story, then we go to town on a couple of proper, ruthless edits.

When I’m on my own, there’s only my conscience and the other voices in my head to push me along. I think I find the first draft the hardest because you’re creating something out of air ... when you’re editing, you’ve already got some word-clay there to play with. When there’s just you, the screen/page, and your imagination (with the inner critic laughing at you), it can be challenging ... and suddenly even cleaning the toilet seems appealing.

How are the stories in Sourdough and Bitterwood Bible connected? What themes, characters, or ideas tie the collections together?

The Sourdough collection came first, and my intention was to write a sequel to that book ... but I’d written the story “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” not long after Sourdough was published, and I’d taken the name of my main character from a headstone in the churchyard of Lodellan (one of the main locations in Sourdough), and I wanted to continue her story. So, I couldn’t make it a sequel, but rather went for a prequel, and Hepsibah Ballantyne weaves her way through The Bitterwood Bible. I’ve got the sequel written now, am and editing it. The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales starts in Lodellan, then moves away from the city, which I did on purpose. Sourdough, as the middle book, has Lodellan as its main centre, all the tales somehow circle around it; Bitterwood starts in a different city, and then slowly but surely moves towards Lodellan (where the last tale occurs); The Tallow-Wife, as the final book in the cycle, has its opening story in Lodellan then shifts the reader away again.

The stories take place in the same world, which is inflected by my reading of English, French, Italian and German fairy and folk tales. I’m working on a graphic novel of Sourdough with Kathleen Jennings, and so we’re figuring out how to mix together all our favourite elements of costumes from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Regency and Georgian periods to get the sort of outfits that have been in my mind onto paper.

As well as being connected by locations, there are the characters, which may appear as a protagonist in one tale, then reappear in a later story either as a secondary or tertiary character, or as someone than the new protagonist tells a tale about ... so the idea is that you end up getting a much more rounded view that if you’ve only got a single view point character to tell you about themselves and the world around them.

As for themes, I think the ideas of home and family and loss of those things are very strong in both collections, as well as ideas about memory and how it shifts and changes across time. I also like to explore issues about female agency or the lack thereof, the position of women, the fear of women, and ideas about witchcraft and legend and female familial relationships. I think those ideas are deeply embedded in the Sourdough Cycle of stories.

Do you feel your characters often represent your world view, or is it a leap for you to create each character's POV?

I always think that each character carries a little sliver of me inside them. I don’t think I could write convincingly if I couldn’t put myself right in the head of the character. So, though I may not agree with their actions, in order for me to understand them and write them, I have to be utterly empathetic to them, see their point of view without judging them, even if they do terrible things. It doesn’t mean I’ll do terrible things, just that I make a conscious effort to understand my characters as well as I can. 

Do you continue to do much research, or rely upon your background and memory of reading history and fairy tales, when you are constructing a fictional world?

When I’m writing in the Sourdough world I have to refer back to previous stories to make sure I keep things consistent. When I’m looking for new ideas to expand, I do more research (research is always fun - at least one of the books on my nightstand is a research book about something), then work out how I can weave it into what’s currently in existence. The important thing for me about the Sourdough world is that it feels very much like our own world - or like an idea of a timeless past version of our own world, so that it’s recognisable to most readers - and that the places where it departs from that recognisability are the places where it becomes something unique and startles the reader.

Will there be more Angela Slatter books set in the Sourdough / Bitterwood Bible universe?

Yes! There’s The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales, which I’ll send to Tartarus Press as soon as I finish polishing it. And I’ve just submitted a novella called The Witch’s Scale to Simon Marshall-Jones at Spectral Press, which takes one of the characters from Sourdough and tells a story of another part of her life. She’s one of my favourite characters and it was wonderful to revisit her and fill in some gaps! There are several other characters from bothSourdough and Bitterwood that I want to write more about, and so I think I’ll manage a few more novellas and short stories in the world. 

Whose work are you reading these days?

I’m re-reading Barbara Hambly’s James Asher series, which I just love. Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book Great. Nathan Ballingrud’s absolutely breathtakingly masterful North American Lake MonstersPrincesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. Link and Grant’s Monstrous AffectionsNecropolis: London and Her Dead by Catherine Arnold. Oh, and Gary McMahon’s simply brilliant The Bones of You.

Whose writing excites and/or inspires you?

Why, S.P. Miskowski, of course! And Mercedes Murdock Yardley. Lisa Hannett, Kelly Link, Eugie Foster, Aliette De Bodard, Margo Lanagan, Cat Sparks, John Connolly, Laird Barron, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Alan Moore, Shirley Jackson, Karen Joy Fowler, MR James, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Charlotte Bronte ... I could go on forever.

What are you working on at the moment?


This year I’ve released Bitterwood and Black-Winged Angels (from Ticonderoga Publications), and Lisa Hannett and I have written the eleventh instalment in the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press, called The Female Factory (which should be out on 15 Nov this year). I’m editing my novel, Vigil, finishing a short story called “Mr Underhill”, plotting for the sequels to Vigil, I’ve got two commissioned stories to write before mid-December, I’ve got another novella on the boil, and another novel called Scandalous Lady Detective. And I’m editing The Tallow-Wife, writing three new short stories for a collection for Noose & Gibbet, and working on a graphic novel and a picture book with Kathleen Jennings. And I get on a plane for World Fantasy next week. There may be some small, stress-related shrieks issuing from our apartment at the moment.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Far From Streets

Far From Streets
Michael Griffin

Far From Streets is a work of long fiction published by Dunhams Manor Press, an imprint of Dynatox Ministries.

In this brief and splendidly written book, Mike Griffin creates a vivid portrait of marriage and the passage of time, using one location as a reference point and a metaphor. The realistic and (perhaps) magical elements balance perfectly, creating ambiguity and room for interpretation. I was reminded of two classic studies in society and marriage, "The Summer People" by Shirley Jackson and "The Swimmer" by John Cheever. But this story is in no way derivative. Griffin has his own strong narrative voice with which to entice the reader to a place of dark corners and deep regret.

Dane and Carolyn are lucky. They're intelligent, fit, and affluent. Better still, their love is real, though flecked with the small irritations and quick, bright moments of nihilism that characterize many long-term relationships, held together by passion as much as by habit. Carolyn wants her dream house in the suburbs. Dane longs for the fantasy fulfillment of living in a cabin in the woods. They're hard-working and they're American, so they try to have it all. And while they try, and they struggle with one another's thwarted expectations, life is passing.

Compressed into short chapters, most of them beginning when the characters wake up at the cabin on weekends, Far From Streets develops an eerie atmosphere, a sense that someone or something is stuck. As Dane and Carolyn negotiate over the circumstances of their lives, the stakes rise. They lash out in an escalating series of violent episodes until the strangeness of their surroundings can no longer be denied. Is the rural setting real, glimpsed across many years, or is it a dreamscape in which this tale of conjugal conflict can be seen in all its potential beauty and madness? Every reader will have to decide the answer.

Highly recommended.

(Note: I received a review digital copy of Far From Streets via the author.)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

10 Horror Stories That Stuck With Me

and what I learned from them

A Shock Room Guest Post by Angela Slatter

 I’ve written a lot about the fairy tales I loved as a child and how they’ve influenced my writing, but I also read a lot of ghost and horror stories, which are quite different. They left a trace, those early frights, and I still reach into the back brain for the lessons they taught me about writing and scaring people. So here’s a list of ten short stories that still haunt my dreams thirty-odd years later. These are by no means the only influences, but they are the ones that sprang immediately to mind when I began to think about this post. The only thing that makes me really sad about this list is how few women are on it. :-(

 1. “The Tower” by Marghanita Laski
I first read “The Tower” in a book of stories we’d been set for Year 11 English class. I read it late at night (in the usual last-minute rush to finish homework), and was terrified by it. In Italy, a lonely young English woman at a loose end while her husband is working, discovers the tale of a purported dark magician from the Renaissance period whose own young wife mysteriously disappeared. The protagonist discovers that Nicolo’s tower still stands, so she makes a day trip out of it. She counts the number of stairs as she climbs to the top of the tower, but loses track of time and so it’s very dark when she begins the descent ... so she counts the number of stairs to keep track and to keep her mind focused ... and all of a sudden she’s counted more stairs down than up ...

You’re left with this wonderful feeling of terror, and this terrific sense that the story continues beyond the page, beyond the final full stop. It’s a deceptively simple tale, very well-paced, with an echoing sense of loneliness. The sense of pace and slowly growing dread have always remained with me.

 2. “Gabriel-Ernest” by Saki
The most gentle and disturbing werewolf story ever. I first read it in Barbara Ireson’s Spooky Stories 2, in the early 80s. I remembering being struck by how terribly English it was, how the very strict sense of manners and impatience with anything different were at the core of − and were the cause of − the tale. And Gabriel-Ernest is a wonderful character, so clever and sleek and dangerous. The dialogue is layered and subtle and works on several levels of comprehension. I couldn’t help, when I wrote one of the stories in The Bitterwood Bible collection, but to name a character ‘the Toop girl’ in a nod to Saki’s ‘the Toop child’ who goes missing. “Gabriel-Ernest” taught me the value of subtlety and layering in stories that, while they may be short, can still have a tremendous impact for the reader.

3. The one about the Wendigo the title of which I cannot recall
I cannot for the life of me remember what it was called, but I read this tale in my teen years, about a boy who found a strange ‘bird’ skeleton out in the woods − it was about the size of large infant and had a sharp beak. The boy brought it home and kept it in the basement ... I think the family cat or dog disappeared. Somehow, the boy got locked down in the basement, his torch went out, and the last thing he heard was the clicking and clacking of that sharp beak. I consumed this during my phase of reading under the covers with a torch in order to circumvent the lights out directive, so you can imagine the effect it had. It taught me that the home is not safe and that your protagonist can die − both very good lessons for a writer.

4. “Dame Crowl’s Ghost” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
I love this one and honestly, what’s not to love? Dame Arabella Crowl in her decrepit finery and her decayed beauty, with her nasty little secret that won’t let her rest? The tender little housemaid come to Applewale House, whose curiosity means she sees more than she should? The story-in-a-story format? I remember feeling that sensation of being frozen to the bed from fear as the old ghost made her way around the room, then the finding of the secret chamber with the murdered boy inside. Wonderfully creepy, with a great sense of time and place evoked.

5. “The Chosen Vessel” by Barbara Baynton
I read this one when I was about nine or ten, and we were living in a town called Longreach in the Australian Outback (which had a most excellent public library). This story makes me shudder to this day; it caused nightmares at the time, but please note: it did not stop me reading horror. It hit hard me because it’s set in the kind of country we were living in at the time; the drover’s wife is recognisable and the landscape and the situation were also very recognisable and relatable. That’s one of the lessons I took away as a writer: the more familiar something is to us, the more terrifying it can be when a twist of difference is added to it, when we lead a reader down a path that looks familiar and then make it strange. It shakes and shifts the world beneath our feet − and that kind of frisson is why we read horror.

6. “Red Reign” by Kim Newman
I first read this at about fifteen in the Stephen Jones edited The Giant Book of Vampires and it cracked my mind open. Initially, I didn’t like it: it MIXED THINGS UP! It broke barriers between the walls of stories and made them sit together in class. But, as I have inevitably found throughout my life, the stronger my initial dislike of something, the more I return to it and analyse it ... and then one day I find I love it. I have seen all its myriad facets and how cunning the construction is of the tale, how the characters are so true, the setting so well-painted, the dialogue so brilliantly weighted. “Red Reign” taught me how to look at stories differently, how to write something unexpected, how to throw in surprises that break a reader’s brain in a good way. I still love it and I re-read it at least once a year. And I am still gripped by, and tremendously envious of, Newman’s ability to sprinkle his stories with the most wonderful and fascinating ‘clutter’ that never gives a sense of making the story cluttered − descriptions always appear to be in precisely the right place, always appear to be precisely the thing the story needs at the time.

7. “The Wailing Well” by M.R. James
M.R. James is the master of making a seemingly harmless tale of schoolboys on a field trip suddenly morph into something dire and threatening. Creepy creeper things in a field, stealing away a child, then having him join their ranks. Enough said.

8. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch
Again, a Ripper story and again a story I did not initially like because it played with the natural order. And again, a story I went back to over and over until I appreciated everything it did. There’s a sparseness in the language that I love, something that I also find at its best in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. It taught me the value of choosing the right word, putting it in the right place and not trying to then embroider it, but just to leave it alone to do its job.

9. “It Only Comes Out at Night” by Dennis Etchison
Another one from The Giant Book of Vampires and it’s left me with a life-long fear of, and distrust for, truck stops, public toilets, and blankets on the back seats of cars. It’s a story about atmosphere as much as anything, for not a great deal happens. Two people pull over into a parking lot at a rest stop, the woman goes to the loo and the man waits. And waits. And waits. He checks out the other cars in the lot and realises they’re covered in dust. They’ve been there a long time. But there are no owners about ... A brilliant exercise in building tension.

10. “Laird of Dunain” by Graham Masteron
And yet again, another from The Giant Book of Vampires − yes, this book did have a large influence on me! A female painter becomes obsessed by the Laird, she begins to paint with her own blood, eventually eviscerating herself and dying − in the process the Laird becomes younger, handsomer. But that’s not the end: the secondary character who is jealous of the woman who dies? She tears the painting in half in a fit of pique, causing the newly refreshed Laird to burst apart. The lesson I took away from this story is that a tale might be made different by allowing a secondary character to have their head (but only after you’ve done all your foreshadowing); that the best laid plans of mice and men will go astray when you’re busy ignoring someone else’s needs; that humans are often unpredictable. So, this tale is an example of how important psychology and depth and complexity are to your characters.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Home and Hearth by Angela Slatter

Caroline’s son returns to home and hearth at last. She’s a good parent or so she tells herself. She did everything a mother could to bring Simon back, even lied for him. The only problem is that Caroline’s not sure she actually wants him here anymore.

What is your worst fear? If you're a parent the worst fear you can identify is probably centered around your child. You fear for his safety, his happiness, his health. You would do anything to keep him from harm. And by 'harm' we mean one thing, really. Harm is inflicted by other people, brutal and violent individuals. You would do anything to prevent such people from hurting your child. But what if the source of harm, the inexplicably cruel individual, were your son? What if all of your love and your sense of morality were wasted on him? What if, despite your efforts, he remained a frightening mystery?

Various authors have tackled these disturbing questions with varying degrees of success. In the new Spectral Press chapbook, Home and Hearth, Angela Slatter has created a painfully recognizable mom doing her best to reason away her son's dangerous behavior. The occasion is the boy's release into her custody following a trial. The point of view is the mother's. We stay with her as she attempts to re-establish a normal life, fighting every bit of evidence which leads her, inexorably, to a terrible truth.

This is a brief but engrossing story, expertly told. We're not burdened with a lot of exposition. Instead Ms. Slatter gives us perfectly timed bits of information. We gather the nature of the characters bit by bit. The mom is a decent person who has every right to expect her child to be decent. Can maternal instinct correct whatever is wrong with the boy?

Angela Slatter's gift is for making what is strange seem plausible. She brings that gift to bear upon the most basic of relationships, in this finely wrought tale of parental grief and longing. Recommended.

Cover credit: Home and Hearth © Angela Slatter/Spectral Press. Artwork © Neil Williams 2014

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Moon Will Look Strange by Lynda E. Rucker

For several years I’ve been collecting horror anthologies. Some have focused on a theme and some have been “best of” annuals. In the second category I’ve found certain editors can be counted on to gather and reprint truly exceptional stories. Stephen Jones’s Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year have no reason to apologize for hyperbole. These are editors who read widely and with great respect for the genre. The work they deliver is extraordinary and well worth the cover price.

While making my way through annual anthologies and reading magazines such as Black Static, Supernatural Tales, Shadows & Tall Trees, and Nightmare Magazine, certain names turn up time and again. One writer whose work I’ve come to admire very much is Lynda E. Rucker. In fact, after reading a couple of her stories I began to look for her name as a sure-fire sign that the volume before me was going to be good.

Karoshi Books, a British small press, is run by award-winning editor Johnny Mains, Peter Mark May of Hersham Horror Books, and Cathy Hurren, a production editor at Routledge. Last September Karoshi Books released The Moon Will Look Strange by Lynda E. Rucker, one of the best story collections of 2013. This is another instance in which a small press identifies an undeniably superb talent far ahead of bigger, more bureaucratic publishing companies.

The Moon Will Look Strange pulls together some of the Rucker stories that appeared earlier in magazines and anthologies (some a few years old and some quite recent) as well as three new stories original to the collection. It’s a beautiful book full of strange, dark-edged, eerie tales. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you like weird fiction, or horror with an emphasis on literary excellence and precise psychological insight set in fascinating, dreamlike locations, you will fall in love with Rucker’s world.

Among the many delights of The Moon Will Look Strange:

“The Burned House,” in which a woman is inexplicably drawn to the remnants of a personal tragedy.

“No More A-Roving,” about a young traveler who can’t seem to move on from the hostel where he’s chosen to rest, and where odd little occurrences remind him of his longing for connection and his perpetual need to remain in transition.

“The Chance Walker,” a story that will keep you up all night double-checking the windows and doors, and that one spot where it seems there ought to be a door.

“The Moon Will Look Strange,” a sharp, painful study of a father’s grief and the length to which he will go to reclaim what he’s lost.

“These Things We Have Always Known,” one of the first Rucker stories I encountered, and still quite impressive after several reads. This is a perfect illustration of the author’s gift for marrying a character’s state of mind to the physical environment.

“The Last Reel,” first published in Supernatural Tales, a very creepy story about a woman who returns to her deceased aunt’s house and makes a shocking discovery, all the while carrying on a cinematic trivia game with her boyfriend.

These are tales you will not forget. The settings seem familiar and yet off-kilter, like landscapes in a dream, or places remembered from a journey years ago. The loneliness and complex desires of the characters will haunt you. No one is better at capturing rare (and terrifying) moments of numinous wonder.

2013 was a year of many fine novellas and story collections. I’d place The Moon Will Look Strange near the top of the list. If you love short fiction as an art form and as a deeply emotional/psychological experience, you can’t miss with Lynda E. Rucker.

For more Rucker fiction read Supernatural Tales 24, Shadows & Tall Trees #5, and Nightmare Magazine (June 2013), as well as Little Visible Delight, an anthology I co-edited with Kate Jonez, published by Omnium Gatherum Media. For non-fiction read Rucker’s brilliant column, Blood Pudding, in Black Static and her blog, in the pines. You can also hear an audio version of “The Last Reel” at Pseudopod.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Eyes of the Spider and Serpent's Path

In the late 1990s, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (known to American audiences for such films as Pulse, Retribution, Bright Future, and Tokyo Sonata) was offered a chance to shoot two video films in two weeks. Aside from the time constraint, he had a modest budget and one cast of actors for both films.
This year Third Window Films has made Eyes of the Spider and Serpent's Path available for the first time on DVD outside of Japan. Whether you're a fan of Kurosawa's mysteries, thrillers, and horror, or just interested in low-budget, creative filmmaking, I think you will find these films fascinating.


Sho Aikawa stars in both movies, and his characters, both named Nijima, provide each story with a moral and emotional center. In Eyes of the Spider, Nijima is a man whose young daughter has been brutally murdered. He seeks revenge but it provides no peace of mind. When he runs into an old classmate, he is lured deeper into a life of crime as the most intelligent member of an eccentric hit squad.

In Serpent's Path, Nijima is a teacher who helps a friend, Miyashita, in a relentless search for the man who killed Miyashita's daughter. Together they trap a guy who formerly served as a low-level yakuza member, and begin to exact revenge. Soon enough the guy implicates another man, and Nijima and Miyashita continue their mission, wherever it leads.

Ordinarily I'm not a big fan of films about yakuza or mafia or any other business-oriented criminal society. Eyes of the Spider and Serpent's Path surprised me. The storytelling is riveting. The technical quality is superb. Best of all, both films are character-driven. Every step of the way, the action is grounded in recognizable psychology and believable emotions. Nothing happens purely for effect.

The greatest delight was the way in which Kurosawa edited his stories. Instead of long, drawn-out exposition or unlikely commentary, he juxtaposes striking images to achieve moving (or humorous) and often startling effects. The result is fresh, timeless, with an emphasis on the humanity of the characters and a real sense of lives playing out to unpredictable yet plausible conclusions. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Croning by Laird Barron

Laird Barron’s debut novel, published by Night Shade Books, opens with a fairy tale most readers will recognize: A miller’s daughter spins straw into gold with the help of a strange, misshapen man who demands equally strange payment. When the spinning is done the miller’s daughter marries the king, and must reward her magical benefactor with the gift of her firstborn son. The only escape from the contract is to guess the benefactor’s real name by the time he returns to collect the child.

Assuming reader familiarity with at least one incarnation of this fairy tale, Barron describes the arduous journey undertaken by the queen’s henchman–who is also her brother and lover–to ferret out the name of the benefactor. Barron’s spin includes profane and anachronistic language, a canine sidekick, and a gruesome discovery: The benefactor is not a one-off con artist. He is ancient and mysterious, insinuating himself into the lives and dreams of thousands of people. He is and is not what he appears to be. And he has henchmen of his own.

Following the fairy tale we pick up our main story. Don Miller and Michelle Mock are married and by all appearances madly in love. His area of expertise is geology, hers is anthropology. Over the course of five decades they travel together and separately to remote places all around the globe. They have children. They grow old together. On paper this seems like a perfect marriage. Yet something has happened to cause a permanent, subterranean rift.

Beginning with a bizarre event in Mexico in 1958 Don and Michelle have taken different spiritual paths. Apparently successful and well matched, their surface lives conceal what may be irreconcilable differences. Michelle has grown strong and independent while Don has drifted inward, developing weird phobias and sensing danger just beneath the skin of nearly everyone he meets.

In his two story collections, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and Occultation, the author has explored the consequences of ignoring myth and recurring tropes when they emerge in the modern world. The Croning delves deeper into collective consciousness for the underlying themes that bind and separate individuals over the course of a lifetime. The fairy tale that opens the novel is not a diversion. The timeless fears that created the fairy tale form the underpinnings to a much larger myth, incorporating Cthulhu-inspired ancient beings as well as anthropological adventures, geological history, and a dynamic portrait of the war between the sexes.

Setting aside the complexity and weight of the narrative, this novel would still be a must-read for the unique style of the author’s prose. No one anywhere combines two-fisted noir with the best traditions of horror quite like Laird Barron. The result is rich with detail, broad in scope, and often shocking in its implications. In Barron’s universe the flutter of a butterfly’s wing is connected not only to a hurricane but to possible car crashes, probable shady business deals, nightmares emerging from the shadows to demand a seat at the breakfast table, and pretty much everything in the attic and basement of every house you’ve ever occupied. This is a writer who comes closer than any artist I can name in capturing the whole shebang of humanity’s place in the cosmos. If you think that’s a crazy exaggeration, you haven’t read his fiction. Read it.