Saturday, July 4, 2009

Bloody Pages Book Reviews

The Shore

By Robert Dunbar
Leisure (Dorchester)
At the tail end of the horror boom of the 80s and early 90s, Robert Dunbar presented to the genre a book of moody, bleak terror: THE PINES. Over the years, this novel has rightfully gained a rabid cult following. Fans of the novel (myself included) speculated why no sequel. This was a man who could, after all, craft engaging and atmospheric fiction, a true master of the art of horror.
Well, we can thank Robert Dunbar and Delirium Books for finally giving the world THE SHORE, a sequel of sorts, involving characters from THE PINES. Dunbar, internationally renowned for his expertise on the Jersey Devil legend, has appeared on multiple documentaries, and written several academic articles in reference to the legend and the environment in which it has survived since the 17th century. This time Dunbar returns to the legend from a different angle, setting the story on the shore of Edgeharbor, a tourist town in its last death throes, where shadows and cold hold wet sway.
In THE PINES, Dunbar created a palpable atmosphere of dark humidity, replete with sodden rot and swampy stench - one of the elements that most fans agree made the book a modern classic of the genre. This time around he has created a chilly, blue world of cold, salty wind and lashing icy rain, which may have you wrapping up in a blanket by book’s end. Those rainy scenes will haunt you, especially the forlorn ending. The plot is deliberate and tight, the characters emotional and full, and Dunbar approaches even the most dastardly with a rare empathy and compassion. There are several surprises along the way, where evil and good may not be what you think they are; the twists are entertaining and emotional.
In short, THE SHORE is every bit as classic as THE PINES, and perhaps even more so, as it helps to build Dunbar’s mythos, and accentuates how much more masterly he’s become at his craft in the intervening years. As with his first novel, it would be easy to write a ten-page essay of all the little details that make his work stand out and why these works transcend genre labels and shelves, but I’ll let you, dear reader, discover these things for yourself.
--Nickolas Cook

The Pines
Leisure (Dorchester)

The end of the 80s saw the implosion of horror as a power in the market place, with the exception of the heavy hitters, like King, Rice, and Koontz. At one point in 1989 there were no less than 45 new horror titles in less than a month from various publishers and imprints hitting the sagging shelves. There were copycats of copycats, and the market was glutted with the bad to worse that horror fiction had to offer.
One book that made it under the closing flap of the 'death of horror' pronouncement from the all-knowing gurus of NYC Publisher's Row was Robert Dunbar's THE PINES (1989 Leisure). It's slow, tense buildup of how four people come together on a dark and windblown night to confront the terror known as The Jersey Devil. Sounds like a simple enough setup, right? Well, yes and no, because Dunbar did it with such power that it defied its own simplicity. And even during this final desperate onslaught of horror regurgitation, THE PINES caused many to sit up and take notice. The book was dark, bleak, and maybe one of the twenty best books to come out of that explosive period in horror fiction.
But it wasn't without its flaws.
Pages of scenes had been cut, and characters subtracted, for the sake of word count.
Now Dunbar, with the fine folks at Delirium Books, has done what he's always wanted to do with THE PINES: He's given us the book as it was originally intended in all its profundity. The missing pages have been added back in; storylines have been properly ripened for the book's final chapters.
Simply put, THE PINES is the demented lovechild of Faulkner and King.
With its tableau of honest characters, full of depth, flaws, and the need for redemption, an unswerving buildup of terror that defies logic, and Dunbar's deft descriptive powers that makes the New Jersey Pine Barrens come to life, this is the way great horror should be written. There is an underlying Southern Gothic sensibility to Dunbar's horror, one that speaks volumes about the nature of violence, and the casual way in which it ensnares good people and warps them. There are no missteps in THE PINES. The editing is managed with such masterly skill that the author is able to pull together divergent storylines into a heady brew, and by book's end one feels the sweat and terror dripping from the page. I was in awe at how much storytelling he was able to do in short bursts, and how he was able to make you feel the grit and despair of the people who call The Pine Barrens home, The Pineys.
For those who do not know, there's a reason why THE PINES comes off with such power. Robert Dunbar is one of the world's leading authorities on the legend of The Jersey Devil. He's appeared in dozens of cable documentaries and done interviews for several magazines on the subject. His background in the field of amateur cryptozoology and Jersey mythos makes him uniquely suited to give the story a backbone of believability, and he holds nothing back in this unabridged version. So for those of you who have read the original version, take that and times ten with this Delirium Books edition.
Word is Dunbar has a sequel coming down the pike: THE SHORES, also from Delirium Books. And I hear it is even more horrifying than THE PINES.
And let me give a quick kudos to the cover artist, Mike Bohatch, for he has truly captured the black and uneasy sense of THE PINES story with his artwork. I would buy a framed print of that cover, folks. Very nice, indeed, Mike. Good job.

--Nickolas Cook

The Orchard by Charles L. Grant

(1986 TOR Horror)
When 'quiet horror' was king, there were two main writers of the form: Charles L. Grant and Ramsey Campbell, each of whom put out some extraordinary genre classics throughout the 80s and early 90s. Both still practice this style, Campbell more prolifically in these latter years. But Grant was especially vocal in his insistence that all great horror was 'quiet', avoiding any reference to blood and guts in his aggregation of works. Some love it; some hate it. All have to agree this man can write like no one else in the industry.
Speaking of prolific: did you know that Grant has over thirty novels, collections, and edited anthologies to his name? If you haven't made time to read him and appreciate his consummate ability to entertainment, please find his books where ever you can and start today. For readers he is a dark treasure trove. For fellow scribes, he is a master of the form and can teach the craft.
"The Orchard" follows his 'quiet' code, as he demonstrates his literary prowess. Grant breaks the novel into several connective shorter works, all centered around the titular locale, situated in his mythical town of Oxrun Station. Each section can be read out of order, and still stand quite well on its own.
Grant begins the novel with a Prologue that sets the tone for the tales that follow, as an old man guides his younger friend out to the Orchard to tell his stories, "My Mary's Asleep", "I See Her Sweet and Fair", "The Last and Dreadful Hour", and "Screaming, in the Dark". The wraparound story is a favorite ploy for Grant, as he has used it in several classic anthology style novels, such as "Dialing the Wind", and became somewhat a professional stamp to his works.
Not all of the stories in "The Orchard" work on equal footing, and may even come off as a bit too obscure for some readers. But his craftsmanship is apparent, even if the moral isn't. The one that works best for me is "The Last Dreadful Hour", the tale of a man trapped in a haunted movie theater with other patrons, who begin to disappear one by one, or transform into nightmarish creatures. It is a truly nightmare like story, as the protagonist descends into madness, and then, finally, acceptance of his fate. The last line of this gem is worth the book alone. I actually felt a bit creeped out by the time I had finished it, a true rarity for a horror writer.
This is a great place to start with Grant. Some of his other works that might be of interest for the novice are "The Pet", "Dialing the Wind", and "The Long Night of the Grave". He also wrote several excellent tie-in novels for "The X-Files" (that show probably wouldn't have existed without Grant's trademark 'quiet' horror bestsellerdom) and a great series called "Black Oak", a sort of Peter Saxon like X-Files. Grant is also known for his genre building anthology series, "Shadows". With so much work to choose from, I don't think a reader can go wrong with any of his books.

--Nickolas Cook

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

There are classics of the genre and then there are CLASSICS of the genre. "The House on the Borderland" is a CLASSIC.
Hodgson uses the plot device of a found tale, as two weekend campers find a crumbling manuscript in the ruins of an ancient house in the woods. Creepy enough already, but when the campers begin to read the lost story of a recluse and his sister it gets even more foreboding.
Lovecraft cited this as one of the best horror novels ever written, and it's easy to see why the man who made his name writing 'cosmic horror' would find it such a compelling read. Hodgson is the father of Lovecraft's fears.
Hodgson has actually written two separate novels in "The House on the Borderland". The first is by far the most frightening of the two pieces, as swine-like intelligent creatures siege the house and the protagonist must battle them for his life. There is a dream sequence at the beginning that sets up that the house is really more than a simple domicile, is, in fact, a sort of extra-dimensional time and space nexus, something that becomes even more apparent in the second half of the book. Through this dream sequence our protagonist finds that there is a monstrous collection of gods that watch the house and its inhabitants from a vast blank desert field.
After his battle with the swine creatures our protagonist descends into the belly of the earth, through a cave in his backyard (which we find later is actually connected to the cellar of the house as well). What he finds there is just as cosmic in its revelations, but he goes no further and barely escapes with his life.
Then comes the second part of the book. And this is where it becomes true 'cosmic horror' as the protagonist is given a glimpse of what the far-far future holds for the universe. As he sleeps, he is thrown headlong into the future and must watch as his own body rots away behind him. He sees the death of the sun, and eventually the death of the earth, and the other planets in the Solar System. Finally, he must face that monstrous collection of gods once again and stay sane.
By book's end we are left with the impression that the world is an unstable collection of facile life and dust, under the control of some faceless entities that give not a wit for mankind's fate.
That's true 'cosmic horror' at its best.
Hodgson's other works were hit and miss with readers, and none ever reached the pinnacle of "The House on the Borderland". This is a truly inspiring work, made all the more so as it was written long before Lovecraft, Machen, or Lord Dunsany tried their hands at 'cosmic horror'.
This review does come with one caveat: The grammar and style is a bit outdated, and may be a barrier for those unwilling to traverse an age or two of craft.

--Nickolas Cook

Apple of My Eye by Amy Grech
Review by Nickolas Cook
Two Backed Books
Trade $11.95

Comprised of thirteen stories, APPLE OF MY EYE is Amy Grech’s second book. One wishes that TwoBacked Books had taken a bit more care in editing the material, because too many of the book’s offerings have minor to major narrative and structural issues. Granted, it’s a novice’s effort, but with a little spit and polish, and an editorial eye to greatness, Grech and TwoBacked Books might have come away with something much better than this collection.
Unfortunately, most of the stories that make up the first half of the collection feel repetitive and amateurish. All the ‘killers’ use almost the same weapons, and all display a very similar ambiguity in characterization, as do her wispy framed protagonists. Too many characters ‘wink’, ‘nod’ or use other silent descriptives instead of allowing the spaces to just be: in short, Grech doesn’t seem comfortable with the silence and feels she must fill them with such physical and repetitive inanities. Grech seems to be shooting for a sophisticated sort of eroticism in some of the stories, but a lack of life experience makes them come off like silly teenage girl journal entries instead- the daydream of eroticism, not the reality. She tries for danger, but it feels like camp. When she tackles love, she does a much better job of conveying realistic emotions.
The collection does, however, begin to pick up towards the last half, giving us much more professional and polished selections—albeit still on the amateurish side. I found ‘Perishables’, ‘Damp Wind and Leaves’ and ‘EV 2000’ to be the best of the thirteen. Each of them displayed a style and voice that I’m sure is hiding within this inexperienced writer. If only they had been made manifest in the other stories as well, this would have been one hum-dinger of a collection.
As it is, it’s mediocre at best.
Still, on the strength of the above mentioned stories, I would give Amy Grech another read in the future, in the hopes that she will have improved her craft considerably.

--Nickolas Cook