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He took another step forward as if hypnotized. The cabin door banged against the support post, a sound as loud as a gunshot. He swung the light on it again, caught a part of a window.

And something else, grinning back at him through the dirty glass.

American horror is dominated by the legacy of Stephen King. Any upcoming writer looking to introduce a plot involving the supernatural is measured against his incredibly popular body of work. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for scientifically reliant horror thrillers like Patient Zero which I reviewed yesterday. It is a different niche for the writer to explore, without the risk of having to measure up to the King of horror.

Nate Kenyon’s Bloodstone throws caution to the wind by letting us know from the opening pages we are taking another trip into the mystical hinterland of American horror. The story begins with the abduction of a Miami drug addicted prostitute named Angel. Her kidnapper, Billy Smith, convinces her that he is being compelled to bring her with him to some unknown destination due to a series of dreams. Angel reveals that she too has being experiencing vivid nightmares of loved ones returning from beyond the grave, but now twisted and evil. The two quickly bond due to this unusual connection between them and soon they find themselves in the town of White Falls, where they believe they will find an answer for the frightening premonitions they have witnessed.

There a disturbed young man named Jeb Taylor is losing whatever loose grip he already had on reality. Having survived the brutal murder of his mother at the hands of his father, Jeb has already lived a lifetime of abuse at the hands of the community for being the son of a deranged killer. Then he is told his father has died behind bars. The prison leaves him what few possessions his dad had, all contained within a single trunk. Jeb’s grandmother begs him to throw away the trunk. She has a dark suspicion as to what caused her son to commit the heinous crime he did. Despite her best efforts, history soon begins to fall into a familiar pattern.

What Billy and Angel discover in White Falls is a town teetering on decades of buried history. The dark tale related in the letters of settler Frederick Thomas who founded the community in the 18th century hint at the true nature of the horror waiting for the town’s inhabitants.

Kenyon embraces the tropes of supernatural horror – a community torn apart by secrets, pagan cults, possession, witchcraft – even the Necronomicon makes an appearance. Actually I found this book more enjoyable  than Stephen King books I have read. I make the comparison as many of the reviews quoted on the book jacket mention that Kenyon’s writing resembles ‘early Stephen King’. I imagine this comparison can also be made due to Jeb and Billy’s addiction to alcohol, which even leads to a hallucination in a pub that is not unlike Jack Torrance’s encounter at the hotel bar in the Overlook Hotel.

What is more the characters are realized quite well and while some of the elements of the plot might seem familiar, it is executed with aplomb. Furthermore there is a disturbingly perverse undercurrent to the proceedings. The sexual guilt experienced by Jeb becomes the catalyst for his downfall and the discovered diaries of Frederick Thomas hint at incest and satanic rituals. Then there is the growing paranoia of the inhabitants of White Falls, with each of them slowly becoming aware of the sense of being watched by someone. The town itself sits on a bruise on the permeable membrane between this world and the next.

Plus it is actually scary. Finally a book for this Halloween season that actually manages to creep me out. A bewitching debut.

‘Ever see the movie 28 Days Later? No? You should. The sequel rocks, too. Anyway, that movie dealt with a virus that stimulated the rage centers in the brain to the point that it was so dominant that all other brain functions were blocked out. The victims existed in total, unending, and ultimately unthinking rage. Very close to what we have here.’

‘What, you think a terrorist with a Ph.D. in chemistry watched a sci-fi flick and thought “Hey, that’s a good way to kill Americans”?’

So it appears someone went and invented a whole new horror sub-genre when I was not looking. Namely books about post 9/11 zombie terrorists. The first book I reviewed for this blog, Feed by Mira Grant did this very successfully I thought. Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth was less so, but thankfully did not take itself too seriously.

Jonathan Maberry’s novel, as the title indicates, is once again concerned with the notion of scientifically plausible zombification. As silly as that sounds, to his credit the author makes a solid attempt at establishing plausible pseudo-science behind the plot.

Which is kicked off thanks to that handy deus ex machina the United States Patriot Act. Joe Ledger is an ex-military serviceman who has worked with the Baltimore Police Department for enough time to realize that if he wants to put his investigative skills to any real use – and make better money – he should become a federal agent. He is well on track to achieving that goal when he is approached by a man known only as Church and recruited to become a member of a secret intelligence agency, the Department of Military Sciences. Their first mission, defeat a plot hatched by Muslim extremists to infect America with a pathogen that reanimates the dead.

Joe’s recruitment is the result of a very special kind of interview. He survives being locked into a room with a zombie. Afterwards he finds himself heading a team of specially chosen grunts and intelligence agents to track down the source of the plague. Meanwhile in the Middle East (don’t you just love that phrase?) a man known as Sebastian Gault has been funding the activities of the terrorist El Mujahid. He will deliver the pathogen created with Gault’s money to the States, but who is manipulating whom? What is more, as the outbreaks of zombie attacks increase, it becomes clear to Joe that someone in the D.M.S., perhaps even a member of his own squad, is feeding information to the enemy.

This book unfortunately contains a number of things that I loathe in horror fiction, in particular the portentous punctuation of doom, otherwise illustrated as ‘…’

On the other hand, Maberry has done an admirable amount of research to justify his far-fetched plot. He also makes a number of nods to pop culture to indicate that this is meant to be above all fun. Characters mention 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead and The Evil Dead. Then there is ‘Doctor Hu’, whose name gets a startled reaction from Joe (who in turn appears to take his name from a Marvel superhero, as Hu points out).

Enough character detail is given to flesh to the plot. As a modern man Joe prefers therapy to the confession box. His friend Rudy likes to debate the finer points of Blue State/Red State political divisions with him. What is more Maberry addresses that the activities of the D.M.S. are unconstitutional. Of course modern terrorism does not respect privacy laws, or the Geneva Convention, so in order to defend America they must fight fire with fire.

Which leads to uncomfortable undertones of fascism. This is a macho fantasy and unashamedly so, but I fail to understand why 9/11, an actual historical event, is being employed to underscore fantastical horror (as already stated in my review of Farnsworth’s book). On that same note this book features a very ugly portrayal of Islam. A character dismisses the criticism that there is no way an Al Qaeda cell hiding in mountainous wilderness could successfully engineer a deadly pathogen in the required lab conditions, by stating that such an argument is racist. Regardless of that handwaving, it does introduce a note of implausibility into the plot. Also the villains of the piece are Muslims and decadent, bisexual Europeans.

Finally, it is not scary. That is something of a deal breaker for me. Think Tom Clancy, but with zombies.

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!

“I know there’s no rational explanation for this, but I’m being sucked into the stories told by some of the callers. I mean, literally, all of a sudden their voices start dragging me in and my surroundings change. Just like that, I leave the radio station and become an unwilling participant in their terrifying episodes.”

Does anyone else remember Midnight Caller?  It was a show about an ex-cop, played by Gary Cole, who was working as a talkshow host who would take an interest in the callers who rang up and would solve crimes on the side. I loved that show….when I was ten. Perhaps that is why when I first started suffering from insomnia as a teenager, I embraced talk radio, as it filled in the blank hours waiting in the dark for sleep to come. I have always had an interest in listening to people’s stories, their interactions with the host, who would often dispense his wisdom in a half flirtatious, half condescending manner.

There is something there for a horror writer to work with. Radio waves floating through the night, the intimate voices broadcast into bedrooms seeming like an invisible friend who comes to you at when you cannot sleep. As such, I was hoping that this book would take advantage of the story potential on offer.

Joaquin is the host of Ghost Radio, a show that airs during the wee hours of the morning that encourages listeners to ring in with stories of their experience with the paranormal. Everyone gets the chance to tell a story. Joaquin’s girlfriend Alondra is far more skeptical of these weird anonymous confessions, whereas producer Watt has unusual habits of his own. Ghost Radio has just made the big jump to success, recently debuting in the States after having developed a cult following in Mexico.

Joaquin is no stranger to cult status, having previously been in a band named Los Deathmuertoz, described as ‘a Latin rock, punk, experimental, progressive band’ formed with his best friend Gabriel, born out a shared love for Dead Kennedys and Einstürzende Neubauten. One night during an illegal broadcast from an abandoned radio station, a freak electrical surge caused their pirated equipment to explode. Gabriel died instantly and Joaquin has only just recovered from the trauma. In many ways Ghost Radio is his coping mechanism. He is convinced there is more to life and death.

Alondra worries that Joaquin is becoming too attached to the stories he listens to on the show. He frequently disappears into a trance, reliving the experiences described by his callers. His behavior becomes increasingly irrational as he loses time and he begins to hear voices calling to him over the airwaves. There is something else out there, something that knows him from long ago, taunting him with the hidden reason as to how he survived the event that led to Gabriel’s death. Why does the voice sound so familiar?

The majority of the novel features conversations between Joaquin and his callers, with their stories becoming weird vignettes describing soldiers returning from the dead; little girls playing with gory dolls; and the haunting tale of a Chinese ‘ghost bride’. Joaquin’s own story and the fraying of his mental state, which is somehow connected to the Aztec legends of the Toltecs, acts more as a framing device for these tales. The book itself is a confused mixture of urban legends and Carlos Castenada bunkum.

It does not help that the initial half of the book features a series of intercutting flashbacks, detailing the adolescent experiences of Gabriel and Joaquin and then jumping forward in time to the growing success of Ghost Radio itself. What is more this book is another victim of what I am coming to regard as pop culture character shorthand. The lyrics quoted from punk bands and the name checking of underground artists is intended to tell us all we need to know about Joaquin, Alondra and Gabriel, as opposed to actually describing their characters. It comes off as needless decoration, unsuspended associations and referencing of pop culture.  The characters speak in stilted sentences, which only add to the sense of unreality. Do people talk like this? Is any of it happening, or is it just a strange dream?

Ultimately this book touches on interesting notions – Aztec cult worship and the scratchy voices of ghosts carried by radio waves through the night – but fails to blend these elements into a coherent whole.

“Where in God’s name did you come from? Who are you?” burst out Mr. Burton frantically.

“I can’t tell you exactly who I am,” replied the querulous whine, “because I’ve only been born a few hours – but my last name is certainly Button.”

“You lie! You’re an imposter!”

The old man turned wearily to the nurse. “Nice way to welcome a new-born child,” he complained in a weak voice. “Tell him he’s wrong, why don’t you?”

I originally intended to review Walter Scott’s Rob Roy for today, but given the season I have decided to review a series of fantastical stories over the next few days. This was inspired after I read today’s io9 article written by Michael Farrant complaining that there are no decent horror novels out there anymore. I also think I will track down John Lindqvist’s latest novel, as I was very impressed by the English translations of Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead.

As to Benjamin Button well it is a very particular kind of adult fairy tale that treats of the deathless phrase ‘youth is wasted on the young’. Not quite Halloween you might say, but it is no less concerned with that most essential element of horror – our fear of dying.

Roger Button is a young man of means living a respectable life in the city of Baltimore. Happily married and having the good fortune to be able to count on any number of relations belonging to the old families of the antebellum South, he is the very definition of a southern gentleman on the make. So it is an absolute scandal when having booked his wife into a fine modern hospital that the issue of their loins should prove to be Methuseleh himself! The family doctor and the attending staff are convinced that Mr Button has set out to fool them somehow and insist he remove the aged child from the grounds immediately. The infant, whose parents eventually give the name Benjamin, is bemused by all the fuss his arrival has caused. His relationship with his father is forever coloured by that sense of initial shock and embarrassment which his birth caused.

Childhood proves to be quite a dull affair for the young/old Benjamin, who resembles an aged gentlemen of some sixty years or so, but finds himself forced to interact with insensible toy soldiers and playthings that do little to alleviate his boredom. Instead he studies dictionaries and encyclopedias in secret, as well as treating himself to a stolen cigar or two. He may be an infant, but he has the appetites and intelligence of a mature man, something Roger refuses to acknowledge. For the sake of the Button family’s social standing, Benjamin must continue to act like a child. Despite these efforts the myth of a strange child with the appearance of a wizened old man continues to grow. Roger fears he will die of embarrassment.

As Benjamine continues to grow young he discovers his body becoming stronger, his wit more adept. He falls in love for the first time and weathers this further scandal of marrying a bride seemingly twenty years his junior with aplomb. Rejection by the admission’s board of Yale University fills him with a burning desire to revenge himself on that august establishment, but for the mean time he concentrates on running his father’s business. Together the two men share a life in their prime, both appearing to be brothers at fifty. However, despite his condition, Benjamin’s loved ones refused to understand how little control he has over his de-aging. It is not the done thing. For the duration of his existence it becomes clear he will be something of a family embarrassment.

Fitzgerald writes this story in a manner of a wry and worldly children’s storybook. The social mores of Benjamin’s lifetime are treated with good humoured contempt, with the author and the infant Button both bemused at how people care so much about such silly things. For as he becomes younger it is made clear that Benjamin has the right of it, despite swimming against the current in such a seemingly rebellious manner. His ending becomes asurrender into soft thinking and soft flesh, Fitzgerald closing his tale with a flourish.

This edition carries a series of illustrations by Calef Brown that match the ironical nursery book tone of the prose. A wonderfully gentle fable about old age and death.

This book we proudly delicate, to Aussies overseas,

You’re trying to make a safer world, for all our families

Last Saturday I read Fly Away Peter by David Malouf, which featured an astonishing vision of a Hades dedicated to Australian Diggers who lost their lives during World War One. This book features a collection of poems, stories and memories of home, intended to lift the spirit of Australian service personnel working overseas.

That said my favourite story in the collection is Melanie Harris’ Loon Kitten Stories, which has nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan, but does feature a determined kitten named Sarge. This simple tale of the author and her flatmates attempting to break in a fiendishly intelligent feline manages to raise a smile and remind the reader that sometimes the simplest things in life can lift the spirit. A year in the life of one frustrated cat owner becomes an epic story of human versus ball of fur and claws. It is a sweetly endearing comic tale.

Swede by Sergeant Grant Teeboon also is concerned with the furry kind, a police dog in this instance, who takes a distinct dislike to Margaret Thatcher. Then Allan Goode’s Mateship defines that most quintessential of Australian qualities by comparing it to the relationship between two puppies.

For the most part though the book features poems and stories from service personnel telling of difficult experiences in distant lands; with families and loved ones waiting for them at home. It is also a book about Australia and Australian pride, about why the Diggers are so well regarded.

Broken into a series of different sections, some dedicated to humour, even romance, the book reminds us that these are men and women who have left so much behind. It also serves to remind them what is waiting for them when they return. Not everyone agrees on the case for war and certain pieces express the anger of those fighting for a cause they are not convinced is a worthy one. Nevertheless once committed the Diggers will not refuse to serve.

In addition to the intimate thoughts expressed in verse and prose, Postcards from Home also features art and photography dedicated to the sights of Australia. Carlo Travato’s illustrations feature throughout the book, but his drawings of quotidian objects are startlingly detailed. There are also photos of some ordinary things, such as a mother possum with its child. Some contrast the familiar sight of Sydney bay with a certain animal in shot. Another comical image has a rather confused Santa Claus stuck halfway up a post.

A sudden change of tone is offered by Kris Farrant, a Canberra based musician who submitted a series of poems taking their inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. At first I was surprised, after all I am very familiar with the line That is not dead which can eternally lie, but I have always considered that New England writer to be something of a cult concern. However, it just goes to show how home itself is a collection of memories and things that are not fixed in the soil of Australia. R.A. Dee’s Charmers is a humourous, yet quirkily romantic tale, without a single squamous in sight (and thank Cthulu for that, a Lovecraft romance is not something I would like to read). Both writers offer contrasting views on life at home….alright not so much with the Cthulu, but you can read Lovecraft at home! They might discourage that in the armed services.

This is a book dedicated to a good cause and is quite a heartfelt at that. Many thanks to Odyssey Books for the review copy.

Beauty can be painfully tantalizing, but orchids are not simply beautiful. Many are strange-looking or bizarre, and all of them are ugly when they aren’t flowering. They are ancient, intricate living things that have adapted to every environment on earth. They have outlived dinosaurs’ they might outlive human beings

Yes, I am that guy who actually liked Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. Not only is a film about trying to adapt a book too difficult to translate to film, but it also touched on the major themes of Orlean’s book. That all-consuming passion turned inward becomes destructive, obsessive, overtaking one’s life. While Kaufman’s conceit of writing himself into his own screenplay proved to be quite entertaining, it echoes Orlean’s own role in her book, initially a mute observer of the fascinating history of orchids and those obsessed with them, such as the captivating John Larroche, but later becomes a less neutral party. Kaufman’s script satirises the Hollywood process of adaptation by forcing the two characters into a romance.

Orlean tells a much different story. Larroche is her introduction to the world of orchid horticulture. Less a character, more a force of personality that sweeps people along in his wait, the man has a talent for turning personal tragedy to his advantage. He is also frequently consumed by a passionate need to collect a series of wildly divergent things, only for his interest to suddenly combust just as unexpectedly. Larroche also has a very high opinion of himself. As he remarks while testifying in a case relating to the theft of orchids from the Florida Fakahatchee Preserve“Frankly, Your Honor, I’m probably the smartest person know.”

The Orchid Thief was originally published as a series of articles in the New Yorker. As such it presents not only a profile of the charismatic Larroche, but delves into the history of orchid hunters, risking their lives for the benefit of distant private collectors back in Europe. They travel through the jungles of Asia and South America to acquire vulnerable and delicate looking orchids, shipping massive quantities of earth and flowers back home. Often in their pursuit of their master’s demands they laid waste to the natural environment that gave birth to the orchid. They would also be actively competing with other agents, resorting to misinformation, theft, sometimes even murder.

The civilized shows of exotic varieties of flowers in the stately mansions of the Royal Botanical Society were therefore the pristine product of vile misdeeds and skullduggery. Here we have Orlean travelling from coolly austere New York to the sweating wild preserves of Florida, the darker side of the history of orchids continues to thrive. Rival orchid enthusiasts have been known to resort to theft and Orlean at one point describes a professional rivalry that quickly spirals out of control between two men, Frank Smith and Bob Fuchs, the latter of whom belongs to three generations of ‘orchid royalty’. Then there’s Larroche himself, whose skewed morality led him to make approaches to the Seminole Indian tribe, convincing them that as the Fakahatchee Preserve legally belongs to them they are entitled to take whatever they want from the swamp land. After the tribe finds itself mired in legal wrangling with the state, Larroche earns the name ‘Crazy White Man’, or ‘Troublemaker’.

Right and wrong, legal wrangling and criminal misdeeds, the study of orchids is the pursuit of beauty above all else and does not allow for such considerations. It also appeals to that most reptile brain of ours, the need to possess something, to prevent others from doing the same. Orlean relates this in the calming, discursive style so familiar from Time magazine and Salon. The material is related in a familiar, clear conversational manner, her relationship with Larroche providing an excellent hook for the reader, as well as the nominal quest to find that most rare of flowers, the ghost orchid.

Enjoyable and edifying.

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