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“There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

I grunted, said nothing.

It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

John Dies At The End was originally a story serialised on a website. Then it was published as a book. Now it’s about to be released as a movie, directed by Don Coscarelli who made Phantasm and is therefore a very cool person in my book. Here have a look at the trailer. My high concept for the story is William Burroughs rewrites Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made me laugh, a lot. More impressive though is that it also managed to disturb me with the implied horrors bubbling along beneath the comic banter between our hero David Wong and his friend John.

As David is telling the story of his adventures – actually during the course of an interview with a reporter named Arnie – we learn that his name has been changed to make him harder to find, presumably by the obsessive fans who follow his adventures online given his growing reputation as a combater of supernatural threats. See one night David and his friend John – also not his real name – were at a concert in the town of Undisclosed (many of the details in the story are redacted for legal reasons) when they encountered a strange fellow pretending to be Jamaican and supplying folks with a drug called Soy sauce. It was a hallucinogen, those who took it experienced visions, heightened senses – as well as death. Overnight almost every person who met the fake Jamaican had died mysteriously, except for John.

The two friends quickly realized that Soy sauce is not just a drug. Following their exposure – David accidentally manages to inject himself – they become aware of strange creatures massing on the borders of this dimension. The end of the world is coming and its only hope is two confused video-store clerks who don’t really understand what is going on.

Much like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Dies At The End cleverly embraces the capacity of the internet to spread stories. Through the course of the book we learn that David and John are becoming more famous, a neat parallel for the growing interest in the book itself online.  This is also the source of the story’s greatest strength. By rooting itself in the commonplace weirdness of the internet – every possible combination of aliens, demons, magic and superscience is just a google search way – the book apes an almost convincing plausibility. The seeming personal testimony of Wong, the pseudonym of Cracked.com contributor Jason Pargin, is also a nice gimmick.

However, the story also has a number of poignant moments surrounding death and our awareness of our mortality. It pop-nihilism, stripping away the ponderousness of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-beasties but retaining the crushing awareness of our cosmic insignificance, is surprisingly compelling. There is a lot of laughter to be found in these pages, but also a creeping sense of dread.

Finally it must be said the ending for this book, a book which is relentless in its foreshadowing of endings, is simply perfect. I cannot wait to see the movie.

John Dies At The End by David Wong

“Most men have no purpose but to exist, Abraham; to pass quietly through history as minor characters upon a stage they cannot even see. To be the playthings of tyrants. But you…you were born to fight tyranny. It is your purpose, Abraham. To free men from the tyranny of vampires.”

When Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out in 2009 it was an instant hit. I remember picking it up on my way to work, leaving it on my desk while I went to get a coffee and returning to find my boss reading it. After eventually wresting it from his hands, I got to check out this literary ‘mash-up‘, for myself. I was surprised to discover that Jane Austen meets zombies turned out not to be just an off-hand gimick. In fact I thought Grahame-Smith did a great job of reinforcing the themes of the original novel. Throwing in some zombies and ninjas helped, but I detected an incisive intelligence beneath the blood and grue.

This book is Grahame-Smith’s second in the sub-genre of horror mash-ups, although instead of throwing supernatural elements into a classic text he has taken the life of Abraham Lincoln as his ‘source text’.

Born in the wild frontierlands of Kentucky, Lincoln grew up with little formal education, but a burning desire to learn. In contrast to his lackadaisical father, his is physically active and eager to earn his own keep. In fact it is due to his father’s debts that the two most pivotal events in Lincoln’s early life occur. Firstly, at the age of ten, he loses his beloved mother to a mysterious illness. Secondly, he learns of the existence of vampires.

Believing his father responsible for the death of his mother, a consequence of the devilish fiend who murdered her seeking an alternate form of payment, he becomes consumed by anger at both his surviving parent and the entire species of vampires. Faster and stronger than humans, when revealed in their true state their eyes are black as coals and they possess prominent fangs. They hide in cities and roam the countryside looking for their prey. As the teenage Lincoln despairs “How could I worhsip a God who would permit [vampires] to exist? He sets about learning all he can about the vampire, after swearing to kill every last one of them in America.

Of course he is no match for the preternatural creatures. It is only through his unusual friendship with Henry Sturges, a sympathetic vampire and the sole survivor of the ill-fated Roanoke colony, that he acquires the necessary training and knowledge to fight the undead. Over the years Lincoln becomes a more proficient hunter, even recruiting other men to join him on his quest. The vampire is a hidden creature, but in certain circles its presence in America is well-known. Slave-owners and corrupt businessmen who have profited by associating with the monsters aid and abet them in their murders. Lincoln eventually decides to enter politics so that he can effect real change throughout the nation and defeat a second enslavement of humanity.

Initially my hackles were raised by the prospect of American slavery being portrayed here as entirely the invention of vampires. “So long as this country is cursed with slavery, so too will it be cursed with vampires.” This seemed to me one fictionalisation of history too many. Thankfully Grahame-Smith anticipates this in the plot.

There is real fun to be had here with its mixture of history and fantasy. Some of the author’s inventions are quite amusing. I especially loved the introduction of Edgar Allan Poe into the narrative, who expresses a ghoulish fascination with vampires, quite unlike Lincoln’s determined drive to eliminate their race. The book also has a canny sense of its own ridiculousness. Chapters have a tendency to end with a clever quip and there is some great banter between Lincoln and his vampire hunting colleagues. Of course, seeing as this is a horror novel, there are scenes of graphic violence, cleverly married to the excesses of war. The American Civil War is not only the backdrop to the climax of the novel, but a staging ground for a final battle between humans and vampires.

The novel’s framing device is that Grahame-Smith himself has been approached by a vampire with a collection of aged diaries belonging to Lincoln, revealing the existence of the undead. It is an entertaining conceit, one that allows for extensive artistic licence.

Well executed and very amusing.

Walking up the driveway to the house, she spots her mother’s face disappear behind the curtain.

‘Spying on me now?’ she says slamming the door.

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room.’

‘How was your day?’

‘You mean, did I do anything weird?’

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room. I’ve got stacks of work.’

My dad used to embarrass my mam by talking about how her mother had psychic abilities. He never phrased it like that of course. He would say she had a gift. I was always curious about that as my family is devoutly Catholic. How was the paranormal accomodated?

Then again I have been to where my family is from in Co. Roscommon. It is a quite isolated part of the countryside, not much to do. Whatever would serve to alleviate the boredom of dark evenings with nothing to do I imagine.

Evie does not have the luxury of my blithe scepticism unfortunately. She is a psychic and feels it is a curse. Growing up in Sydney’s inner suburbs she would occasionally see strange things, or hear people’s thoughts, only realizing when she was older how uncomfortable she made people when she spoke of her extrasensory perception. Her own mother treats her with fear and suspicion. Evie is made to feel even more freakish when an incident at school reveals to the other students just how different she is. Bullied and mocked as a witch, Evie retreats into herself, refusing to go out at the weekends, desperately clinging to the few sympathetic friends she has.

What is worse, with Year 12 exams coming up, Evie needs to produce an art project in time for assessment. Instead she finds her drawings becoming warped and transformed, with a face of a girl she does not know emerging on the canvas. She cannot trust her own body to obey her and begins to notice unusual changes. Her left eye becomes infected, even her hair starts to feel different. It is as if a stranger’s body is replacing her own. Then there are the dreams that leave Evie haunted, her unconscious mind invaded by warnings and premonitions she cannot understand.

Estranged from her own family, her friends and feeling isolated at school, Evie despairs of ever being normal. Until she receives a phonecall from a family friend she never met, who has a secret to tell her that changes everything.

J.C. Burke captures a teenager’s feelings of alienation perfectly in the first half of this book. The  testosterone fueled punch-ups between schoolboys, post-weekend gossip about friends’ lovelives and obsessing about what clothes look good nail the adolescent experience as well. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Glebe Markets that are introduced, with Evie and her two friends Poppy and Alex play-acting around in the vintage clothes stores on a Saturday afternoon. First time I came to Australia I stayed at a friend’s house in Glebe and really came to love the area. Local details like that make this book come alive, with Evie a recognizable and true-to-life teenage protagonist.

Where I began to have problems was with the direction the supernatural plot takes the story. At first I assumed, what with the school bullying of Evie, that this was a Young Adult rehash of Stephen King‘s Carrie. When her dreams hint at a spectral force directly haunting her, even threatening to take over her body, I began to suspect a climax similar to Koji Suzuki‘s brand of disturbing body-horror.

Instead Burke presents a teenage take on the successful television series Medium. I’m sorry to say, and I am sure this seems like an irrational personal bias, but I strongly resented introduction of a police investigation into the plot. This may sound hypocritical, after all I have raved about supernatural detective novels on this blog such as those featuring Felix Castor and Joe Pitt, but the essential difference is that they were entirely fantastical books. Police have been known to use psychics in investigations (although that perception of mine could be due to false press) and to my mind the ‘professional psychic’, is no different than John Edward cold reading a gullible audience. In The Red Cardigan scepticism itself is claimed to be capable of sucking away a psychic’s powers.

However, that being said, the first half of this book makes for an excellent assessment of teenage life. I am sad to say I was left conflicted afterwards, but would recommend this chiller for an adolescent readership.

When an author chooses to tell a story from the point of view of an animal, with the perfect mixture of pathos and sentimentality, it outstrips childish fables about talking household pets. One of my favourites poems from school was An Bonnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. It is sad, yet also humourous, the death of a small bird from thirst being used by the poet to justify his alcoholism. In one perfectly composed poem he marries the vulnerabilities of a small, weak creature to his own frailties.

A far greater accomplishment than any wise-talking animated rodent.

Beasts of Burden has previously appeared as short stories in comic book anthologies, as well as the miniseries collected here and even a notable crossover with Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson have fashioned together a strange world of talking dogs and cats, where human pets defend their owners and the rest of the world as well, from supernatural threats such as plagues of frogs, ghosts, witches and zombie dogs.

Our heroes are a small band of dogs, and an orphaned cat, who live on Burden Hill, a seemingly ordinary suburban neighbourhood. When leader Ace calls on a ‘wise dog’, to advise on a dog kennel haunting, the group find themselves drawn into a series of adventures, eventually leading to their own initiation into the ‘Wise Dog Society’ as apprentice Watchdogs.

The first page sets up the story immediately. Ace has Doberman Rex, Jack Russel Whitey and Pugsley (who is of course a small and very argumentative Pug) summon a wise dog by howling at midnight. We see the three dogs argue about whether or not the summoning is working, with the cat known as Orphan mocking them all the while, only for a large shaggy white dog to appear before them. Ace explains to the wise dog that his friend Jack claims his hutch is haunted. They group discover a carcass buried underground, with a collar attached. The wise dog identifies the bones as belonging to a dog named Trixie. The stage is sent for a most curious and heart-breaking exorcism.

When you come to Jill Thompson’s panel of the gathered group of dogs with tears in their eyes, it’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat. In fact the art of this book is one of its great strengths, the water colours brilliantly emphasising Thompson’s style, which in the past I have found a bit harsh for my liking. The loose lines around the characters gives them the appearance of constantly being in motion, which fits the material quite well. I also love how the ordinariness and lack of anthropomorphism contrasts so sharply with the occult horrors of Burden Hill.

Dorkin’s script manages these contradictions quite well, with the animals fitting in their adventures between making appearances at home so their owners remain none the wiser. There is this fantastic, incongruously epic tone to the proceedings, such as an army of cat familiars invading the neighbourhood, or a missing pups case becoming a story about vengeance from beyond the grave.

There is also a light melancholic tone to the stories collected here. The lives of these pets are cheap. After all, their owners can always just go back to the pet store. The story A Dog And His Boy is particularly heart-breaking. Dorkin also uses that issue to drop hints that some in the human world are aware of the goings-on at Burden Hill, but choose to leave the general public in ignorance.

This book is both warm and compassionate, as well as surprisingly humane. Dorkin and Thompson’s title joins the likes of David Petersen’s Mouse Guard in introducing contemporary readers to stories about animal protagonists that read more like classic adventure tales written with wit and pathos, than Disneyfied trite fare.

Drop whatever you are doing and get this book. It’s just that damn good (and many thanks to my lovely wife Stephanie who bought it for my birthday).

 

I took the book from her, and the pen, and opened Silent Riots to the title page. I signed my name, trying to remember the last time I’d signed one of my books, trying hard to recall how long it had been.

“Not the sort of thing I usually read,” she admitted, “I mean, it is rather explicit. A bit grim for my tastes. But, even so, I thought it was quite well written. Poetic, even.”

Horror fiction has enjoyed any number of stories involving a discovered text, or diary hinting at the horrible fate that befell the writer of the tale we are about to read. The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is one of my favourites. Not only is it set in the west of Ireland, but Hodgson’s story manages to describe its narrator’s increasing desperation convincingly, before throwing the equivalent of everything and the kitchen’s sink in terms of mythical eschatology right at the reader. It is intimately written (poor Pepper), while also managing to be ambitious in its scope. Cut to a hundred years later and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves managed to repeat the feat, introducing us to three distinct narrators, with their individual texts interwoven on the printed page.

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel opens with yet another ‘editor’s note’, revealing that we are about to read a manuscript by author Sarah Crowe, a genre writer who committed suicide following the events described.

With that established, Sarah’s arrival at the Wight Farm, located near a large and distinctive red oak tree is described in diary form. She has travelled from the south all the way to Rhode Island to get away from her past and maybe, just maybe, actually write a book that will get her publisher off her back. Unfortunately she has been suffering from writer’s block, is still traumatized by what happened to her lover Amanda and is starting to suspect that she has nothing left to write. Instead of working on a new novel, Sarah begins to explore the history of the Wight Farm, discovering that the previous tenant an academic named Charles Harvey, hung himself from the oak tree outside. He had been working on a history of the farm and its eerie history, with a number of mysterious happenings over the years seemingly connected to the area.

Sarah’s isolation is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Constance, a local-born artist who has returned home from L.A. It appears the landlord is hoping to squeeze as much rent out of the property as possible. Constance actually knew Charles Harvey and happens to believe in all sorts of occult phenomena, explaining to Sarah that she believes ghosts are phantom projections through time of past, or future events. Initially exasperated at having to share her new home with a stranger, the two women grow closer even as the red tree sitting outside their home inexplicably becomes more menacing. Over time they both witness a series of strange phenomena, including missing time, sudden nausea, dislocation, vivid dreams and yet neither can bring themselves to leave the Wight Farm. As Sarah continues to study the increasingly erratic writings of Charles Harvey, she finds herself following in his footsteps into madness.

I chose this book as it was mentioned in the King of Nerds article that inspired this horror novel glut I have embarked upon. As it happens I have read Caitlín R. Kiernan’s writing before. Some years ago a friend gave me a lend of her debut novel Silk. I was not a fan. The Red Tree was nominated for this year’s World Fantasy Award so I wondered whether I would enjoy this more.

This has to be one of the most defensive books I have ever read. It reminded me of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, particularly the sequence where he attacks the critics of his films. Sarah Crowe rails against her own critics, both in the media and on amazon.com comment threads, while despairing that maybe she is just a hack. She peppers her conversation with literary quotes and references, the book quoting liberally from Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative Arthur Gordon Pym. The absolute low-point for me was when she repeated a memorized passage on Francis Bacon that she read on Wikipedia (Irony!).

It is the humourlessness of Kiernan’s writing that I find most disagreeable though. Chalk this one up as another negative review.

Today’s review is somewhat shorter, but then it is my wife’s birthday, so you’ll allow me this one won’t you?

As it happens I have chosen the latest book from the master of disturbing imagery – Mr Charles Burns, creator of the seminal Black Hole.  If you have not heard of him and are interested, I envy you not just the chance of discovering this great artist for the first time, but also being able to walk into a bookstore and pick up the collected edition of Black Hole. Fans of the book had to wait a year between issues as Burns balanced his time working on this story of teenagers in the seventies enduring a disfiguring disease known as ‘the bug’, with commercial advertising.

There is also a movie based on Black Hole on the way. Now that is something I am very eager to see.

X’ed Out retains some of that previous work’s themes – disaffected teens, drug use – but Burns also mashes up two very diverse sources, namely Tintin creator Hergé and William BurroughsThe Naked Lunch. As you can see below, the cover of X’ed Out is a riff on the Tintin adventure titled The Shooting Star (apparently a favourite of Burns’), here with giant eggs standing in for the alien mushrooms of Hergé’s tale.

Doug is a young man suffering from a series of disturbing dreams. He finds himself in a bedroom with no memory of how he got there. There is a large hole in the wall of this room. His dead cat appears and leads him out through the hole into a barren wasteland covered in refuse and sewage. Attempting to follow his former pet he finds himself in another building that appears to be storing a collection of giant eggs. There he is confronted by a green reptilian man, who ejects him from the building into a street that resembles downtown Cairo, or Tunis, populated by weird and monstrous looking denizens.

He drifts in and out of the dream, occasionally flashing back to a period in his life when he met a fellow artist named Sarah, who expresses herself through unusual photographs hinting at feelings of self-loathing, or disgust. Doug himself attempts to perform beat-style poetry using the stage name Nitnit, homaging William Burroughs’ cut-up technique and wearing a plastic mask that resembles a punk-Tintin.

These events appear to be happening in the early nineties during the grunge-era with its revival of interest in punk icons like Patti Smith, as well as beat poetry and a return to experimentation in the arts. Doug is also medicating himself with antipsychotics of some kind and is seen eating pop-tarts. The events of his past begin to bleed over into his dream, his own personal Interzone. In this world Doug resembles a black dye-job Tintin, his Nitnit character come to life. He sees Sarah there also, transformed courtesy of the Hergé aesthetic from a troubled young woman with white scar lines along her arms into a beautiful princess.

This is the first in a new series by Burns, with each chapter published in the hardback European style. It is a dark fantasy, with an abiding sense of creeping horror waiting within its pages. I could be trite and say it is perfect Halloween fare, but I am not prepared to wait until October 2011 for the next book. I want it now!

Rawrr catty.

I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.

Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.

The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.

Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.

In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.

Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!

Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).

This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.

Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.

Gleefully recommended.

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