Sunday, November 28, 2010
Next up is Beachcombing by Ray Cluley. By picking up and collecting items at the beach, a boy feels the emotions of the person who dropped them. A gorgeous story about lost things and lost people. Joel Lane's Sleep Mask offers us a haunting story about a man with a sleep disorder who dreams of his dead parents. Chilling.
Simon Clark's They Will Not Rest offers a strange Armageddon. Coffins mysteriously appear next to you while you sleep and within weeks most of the country is dead or dying. Taking a line from the story, 'If staying alive means staying awake, how do you do it?' Outstanding, and my favourite story this issue.
Lavie Tidhar concludes the fiction for this issue with The Wound Dresser, a poignant story about the role of angels of Death during World War II. The ending is heart-breaking.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Did it live up to my expectations? For the most part, yes, and it passed with flying colors, too. It was a fun, quick read, full of action and intrigue. As far as plot goes you have angelic beings, dark Nazi experimentation, doors to other dimensions, and a female protagonist who is a James Bond-type character jumping across Europe on secret missions. We travel with the protagonist from historic Paris to the remote, frozen wastelands of Siberia and beyond, perhaps even to Heaven itself. The action scenes are well-written and compelling. This is an adventure story, plain and simple.
The fact the book is a plain and simple adventure story might be considered the book’s strength by many readers, but in a way, this fact became a weakness for me and my own high expectations. I guess I just expected more instances of the contemplative and strange from Tidhar. This book felt a little safe in places, relying on spy novel tropes in favor of the fantastic hinted at in the story. It is a novella more inspired by the language of Ian Fleming than Dante. It is an action-packed spy story more than a contemplative fantasy, and I tend to be the kind of reader who prefers contemplative fantasies. So, this was just a matter of my personal reading preferences tainting my enjoyment of the book to a minor extent (very minor).
That said, An Occupation of Angels is a very well-written spy book which I found fun to read and recommend highly, especially if you tend to enjoy spy stories and/or adventure novels. I think rabid fans of Indiana Jones or the Jason Bourne series would absolutely love this novella.
Using my six-pack rating system, I give An Occupation of Angels a solid 4 out of 6 Angel City Ales. I look forward to reading more of Tidhar’s work. He’s the kind of writer who always surprises, rarely repeats himself, and shows a lot of range in his oeuvre.
*Legal Disclosure: received a free electronic review copy of novella through publisher.
Ghost stories tend to have a very familiar quality to them, which is likely due to ghost being the longest surviving horror tropes going--older than even the genre itself. So when an author can come along and offer something a bit different from the norm, and not bungle it, that's a rare treat. David Dunwoody offers one such story with Nevermore.
And it starts off with one of the best opening passages I've read in a while:
"Malcolm Witt died in his sleep at 11:07 PM. Four minutes later, his body rose and walked from the room. Malcolm watched it happen."
That really got me hooked for the next fifty some pages of this story. It's a prelude though, as after that passage the story jumps back in time to early in the night when Malcolm attends a restaurant with friends. Saul, a flamboyant medium--one of those John Edward types--"lenses" Malcolm's third eye as a way to help him discover the identity of the man with whom his ex-lover, Leo, cheated on him. The spell doesn't seem to work though, but when he returns home drunk and passes out, that's when he dies and witnesses his corpse rise up and go absolutely bananas. Well, not so much bananas, but cannibal holocaust on anyone within arm's reach.
While Malcolm has become a kind of ghost, his corpse has become a kind of zombie, but neither term is entirely accurate and as the story ramps up page after page, it's easy to see why. The story starts off very methodically, establishing the characters and setting the stage, but once things kick into high gear they don't let up, and Malcolm has hellish night to figure out what's happened to him, who's responsible, and how to stop his body from going after those closest to him.
After finally getting a chance to read "The Dunwoody's" work, I'm looking forward to seeing what else this guy has up his sleeve.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Whenever I hear tell of Kim Paffenroth, it's usually in the context of the zombie genre. The man knows zombies. And given this was the first time I've had a chance to read his work, I was fully expecting some gruesome undead fare. And while there is a character risen from the dead in Orpheus and the Pearl, she is not a zombie--at least it's not explicitly stated that she is.
Set in the backdrop of Massachusetts during the early twentieth century, Dr. Catherine MacGuire is called to the residence of Dr. Percy Wallston on an urgent matter concerning one of his patients, a woman in dire need of psychoanalysis. MacGuire is versed in the teaching of Freud and the workings of the mind, a relatively new form of the science, which is exactly why she was chosen by Wallston. To her dismay, she learns the patient is Wallston's wife, Victoria. All the more unsettling is that Victoria died--or was at least said to have died. In fact, Dr. Wallston has resurrected Victoria with startling, violent results, and he desperately needs Dr. MacGuire to find a way to have his old wife back rather than the ravenous and malicious creature he has sequestered in his home.
Paffenroth's story evokes some of that old world charm, as a horrific affliction is shown against a quaint backdrop. It's the whole juxtaposition of the prim and proper engaging in macabre acts. But it's not an entirely gruesome story, and rather relies more on the tensions between Dr. MacGuire and the Wallstons, both in their interactions with each other and MacGuire's past creeping into the back of her mind. And the ending is not at all what I initially expected, which is good in one sense, but on the other hand the end result felt a bit too--I don't want to say chipper, so let's go with neat and tidy.
All in all, it's a good little story. Something off the beaten path from the onslaught of gory depictions of the undead, and the historical setting resonated much better with me than when I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. If you like tales of the undead with a strong emotional core, this might be the kind of story you'll want to check out.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
The Circus Wagon by Andrew S. Fuller – The Circus Wagon is a novelette available in a variety of e-book formats from Damnation Books. Fuller provides a compelling quick read. In this story, protagonist Christopher Epstein (an everyman figure) has hazy memories of an old circus wagon that used to sit in the yard of his grandmother’s house. The origin of the wagon is shrouded in mystery as noted in this excerpt from the text:
“Had Grandpa worked in the circus? No, the wagon was older than that, someone said. What was inside—rats? Bats? A lion’s skeleton? A blind old witch? No, tons of mosquitoes swarmed you at once if you got too close, and lightning bugs avoided that part of the yard.”
Through the course of the story, we meet Christopher Epstein as an adult and learn the circus wagon followed him and negatively affects his adult working life and relationships. People die. Surreal insanity subtly overlaps reality. The wagon itself remains an object of mystery and source of unknowable terror. Well done!
Now, I’ll note just a few minor criticisms:
- The mystery of the wagon itself never feels fully resolved and remains quite ambiguous, but this could also be a strength of the story depending on the reader. Some might argue the ambiguities add to the overall mystique. Others would argue otherwise. If you are a reader looking for a clear-cut denoument, you might want to look elsewhere. Me, I personally liked that the mysterious aspect remained such a mystery. It left me thinking about the myriad of possibilities behind the wagon’s very existence and purpose.
- I felt the protagonist, Christopher Epstein, was a little too passive of a character. Once again, some might argue this is a strength: it makes him an empty vessel in which a reader can possibly project some aspect of their self. But, as a reader, this passivity frustrated me.
- My main complaint would have to be length. Yes, it was a short story, but at this price ($2.99) you could buy entire novels in e-book format. At just 7,200 words, there isn’t much reading here for your buck. I read it in one sitting (about twenty minutes) in a doctor’s waiting room. This is no fault of the author, of course, but a slight criticism directed towards the publisher. Damnation Books could better serve their customers by putting together a selection of stories by Fuller (I, for one, was left wanting to read more of his short fiction) and upping the word-count to provide value for the customer. I’ll note here for full disclosure that I received a free copy from the author for review. Had I paid the full cover price, I may have felt a little ripped-off. But I need to give credit where credit is due: the cover art, design, editing, and formatting seemed professional.
To sum up: The Circus Wagon is a very well-written and engagingly mysterious – not to mention ambiguous – piece of supernatural fiction. Using my six-pack rating system, I give this story 4 out of 6 pints of Guinness. For the author, I toss in an extra shot of Bushmills Irish Whiskey as a chaser.
Friday, November 19, 2010
I recently finished Issue 15 of Crow Toes Quarterly and I really wish I had stumbled upon this magazine 15 issues ago. There is definate delight found in every issue, story and poem. You would be hard press to dismiss this magazine as average or amateurish. Indeed, there is quite a craft here.
It is a publication which aims for children's horror, but which is easily accepted by adults as well. Their latest endeavor features a beautiful mix of the dark, the strange, the unsettling, the morbid, all with a child-like innocence.
The issue begins (aside from the Narrator's introduction) with Rebecca Huggins' story Waiting, where we are introduced to an isolated boy living in a grand mansion, filled with an even grander library. Yet, despite his isolation, he is quite content with his life, living vicariously through his own imagination. Until one day a stranger stands outside his window. A stranger who happens to enjoy hot cocoa and wishes to take the boy on an incredible journey. A journey we all take at some point in time.
The next story stays true to the uncanny, reminding us that Halloween is not only fun and sugary, but frightening and bitter. The time Between, by Sherry Isaac, reminds us that at the stroke of midnight anything can happen, especially on Halloween. For three young children playing in an attic, dividing the rewards from trick-or-treating, midnight becomes far too strange when one of them discovers an old pocket-watch. Never mess with a watch, especially an old watch, when it's trapped behind blue goo. Further more, though Halloween is fun and sugary, make sure adults always check the candy for those frightening, bitter pieces.
Next, The Skeleton Doll, by Caspian Gray, is a bone-chilling tale about a mother and her daughter. Her dead daughter . . . lying in a forest. This story was my personal favorite as it teetered on the edge of the macabre with a rather sad, yet beautiful rendition of Pinocchio. An old woman who lives in cabin alone, having recently suffered from the demise of her young daughter, goes to great lengths to restore her happiness. But just how far is she willing to go? Having enjoyed her life while her daughter was alive there's no reason she can't enjoy her life while her daughter is dead. Though, in order to enjoy her life, her daughter must remain with her one way or another. With a little thread, a little stuffing, happiness can be found.
Then there's the flash piece by Grier Jewell, The Hand of Holland Rogers: Is It True? This calls to question the things that keep us awake at night. When you can't sleep, what do wonder about? Do you ever ponder something is lurking in the corners of your dark room? Do you curl under the sheets, seeking protection from the night? What was that sound? Is that a finger touching your feet? Or should you keep such thoughts out of your mind and try to go to sleep? But exactly how can you go to sleep when you feel a hand touching your leg? But that's just nonsense . . . isn't it? (Personally, I've always envisioned shark fins circling my bed.)
Last, we're treated with a witty, disgusting tale about a child who pieces themself together. Literally. Brains Coming Out of My Ears, by Anne E. Johnson, is a vivid story about the rewards and misfortunes of having all the brains. But when you have all the brains, imagine all the things you could accomplish. Imagine how powerful you'd be! Especially with an extra set of eyes in the back of your head!
The magazine doesn't stop there however. Equally pleasant, and equally dark, are three poems.
Ice Cream Truck, by Shawn Riopelle, takes us through life as it centers around that little, flat piece of wood commonly found in Popsicles, and doctor offices.
A Prickling On My Shoulder, by M Sullivan, is a whimsical, avant-garde poem about that funny feeling you sometimes get.
Spider, by Matt Dennison, reminds us that those eight-legged little terrors are always there.
Last, but not least, the magazine is also packed with beautiful illustrations, reminding us that the uncanny is indeed a spectacle worth looking at. For just a buck-fifty, Crow Toes Quarterly, Issue 15 is available for download in a PDF format from their website: http://www.crowtoesquarterly.com/. Filled with all things cute and horrible, this magazine is a must for any zine-fans looking for something a little different, a little innocent, a little odd, a little playful, and all around a little delightful.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Per publisher Leah Bobet’s Editor’s Note, the “September 2010 issue delves into some off-kilter relationships: how they go subtly right, or wrong, and what we do about it.” That sums up this issue pretty well, I think.
This issue can be read in its entirety here: http://www.ideomancer.com/?p=352
“Fairest in the Land” by Catherine Krahe – A piece of flash fiction which describes the lives of some famous fairy tale princesses from a different perspective. Words are used in a manner that creates striking visual portraits of the characters. However, the wonderful language glosses over the lack of a clear narrative flow. The story is all description with very little in the way of actual story. Also, the hardened princess trope utilized is becoming a little too pervasive in genre culture and this one does not really add anything new for me. Still worth reading for the language alone.
“It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer’s Day” by Lenora Rose – A selkie story, told as a prophesy. There are some interesting twists in the end, and I applaud the author for how she turns a prophet into an unreliable narrator. My only complaint is that the exclusive use of future tense to tell this story tends to be repetitive and awkwardly worded at times.
“Afterglow” by Sandra Odell – Near the beginning of this story, a character states: “Anything is possible if you love deeply enough.” This slightly oedipal romance is alternately sweet and surreal, tender and disturbing. The term Kafkaesque comes to mind. I guess you could say this story is Jungian erotica. Recommended with reservations. Definitely the most memorable and unique story of this issue for me.
“Evening in Pompeii” by Rachel Swirsky – Wonderfully descriptive poem speculating what it might have been like on the eve of Vesuvius’s cataclysmic eruption. I feel this is the strongest poem of this issue.
“diurnal/nocturnal” by David Kopaska-Merkel – Per the author, this is a Fibbonaci-no ku describing a tear in reality. The form for the poem is nice, giving an interesting, somewhat staccato flow to the words when read aloud. However, the author’s “fragmentary ideas” and fragmented imagery gives the poem a fragmentary feel. Without the author’s note at the end, I would have completely missed out on the intended context. On first read, after reading Swirsky’s poem, I thought it might be another piece describing a volcano. All the same, the night/day duality is explored well, and the language is nicely loaded for interpretation.
“Moondance” by Mikal Trimm – A tribal chant describing “Nights of blood and hope and abandon.” A very dark feel pervades this piece.
“Time Ghosts by Ann K. Schwader – History repeats itself giving life to new ghosts which are the same as the old ghosts. A short, thought-provoking poem.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Having worked with Christopher Fletcher (the editor) I admire his commitment to genre, his magazine and the respect he has for the writers he works with. This man rocks. He tirelessly puts out a new magazine every month. I don't know how he does it.
It's hard to pick a favourite story from issue 22. Mostly, I'm torn between the African jungle and the strange creatures a scientist has created in Gustavo Bondoni's 'Wyrm of the Mangroves' and the bizarre aliens in Patty Jansen's 'The Invisible Fleas of the Galaxy'. I think Bondoni's tale just nudges over the winning line because I felt Jansen's story ended a little too abruptly. That's not to say it wasn't fun. Oh was it ever. Both stories were also effectively creepy. Trust me, don't mess with DNA and don't mess with aliens however small and seemingly insignificant.
The issue also features fiction from Joseph Auslander, Jr and Bryce Mainville.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
My less-than-eloquent response: that sucks.
No reviews for anything from Clockwork Phoenix, Shimmer, Weird Tales (WEIRD TALES!), Space & Time, Triangulation, Electro Velocipede, Albedo One...
As a writer, I've benefited from several favorable reviews of my stories in Tangent's virtual pages. I don't have the time/energy or expertise to fill the gap left by Tangent's rather narrow focus. I can offer suggestions of short pieces I've read and enjoyed, and will continue to do so here at Skull Salad. What I'm asking is simple:
I need a few brave souls to join me, not as "full-time" reviewers, but as folks who enjoy good, short speculative fiction and would be willing to offer suggestions of reading material from time to time. Nothing big. Even one story recommendation a month goes a long way in keeping the speculative fiction machine alive.
If you want on the list (no obligation), email me. (aaron.polson(at)gmail.com)
From here on, Skull Salad only touches short fiction from venues paying less than "pro" rates.