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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).

 

There’s something about your own name in someone else’s handwriting that gives you an instant blip of recognition, even when you meet it in unusual circumstances. And this certainly counted as unusual in my book. For one thing, it was written backwards, from right to left: but then, that was because it had been written on the inside of the car windscreen, by someone sitting in the driver’s seat. More strikingly, it was written in blood.

When I first read Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know I was pleased with his mixture of Chandlerisms and references to Vertigo Comic’s John Constantine, with protagonist Felix Castor also a Scouser with paranormal abilities. Thankfully Carey was able to go further with his own literary sandbox, introducing themes and ideas that might not have gone over to well with DC editors looking to develop further sequels to the mediocre Constantine film. The three titles in the series preceding the subject of today’s review are fast-moving supernatural thrillers, with Felix Castor a sometime-exorcist by trade, trying to make a living in a post-Millennium London that is teaming with werewolves, zombies, demons and ghosts.

This book quickly introduces the status quo, without leaving new readers lost. I would recommend reading Castor’s previous adventures, just to get a feel for the universe Carey has fashioned, as well as the excellent supporting cast.

Thicker Than Water opens with a daring heist, of sorts, with Castor and his partner Juliet (a succubus whose actual name is Ajulutsikael, but that’s not important right now) absconding from a private hospital with a very special patient. Some years ago Castor botched an exorcism involving his friend Rafael Ditko, which body was then transformed into a cell for a very powerful demon named Asmodeus. For years Castor has played a game of brinkmanship with the creature, managing to keep it sedated for brief periods so that Ditko can enjoy some peace. Until that is word got around about the powerful demon trapped in a human’s body and a court order was issued releasing him into the custody of old rival’s of Castor’s, who dearly wish to see what makes a creature such as Asmodeus tick.

After everything seems to go according to plan, Castor tries to lie low. Ditko is safely stashed away at a friend’s househouse. His landlord Pen gets to visit her old boyfriend for a conjugal visit or two while the demon is slumbering. And his buddy Nicky, the paranoid zombie, has invited him around to watch a private screening of Blade Runner in his own restored cinema. Then everything goes wrong fast.

Castor is implicated in the stabbing of a man named Kenny Seddon. Not only did he grow up with the victim in Liverpool, the severely wounded man managed to write the exorcist’s name in his own blood at the crime scene. As a suspect Castor is ordered to stay at home for questioning, but suspecting a fit-up, he returns to investigate Seddon’s home at Salisbury estate, a vast perpendicular warren of tower flats and narrow over-passes. There he discovers a malign, vicious miasma of evil, infecting the ordinary families living in the towers with a thirst for blood and violence. Somehow it is all connected to Felix and his childhood. And only Asmodeus knows what it wants.

First off this book is a great leap in quality from the preceding entries. I enjoyed them for what they were, but thought the formula was beginning to wear a bit thin. Carey has positioned all his pieces nicely for this book, allowing for greater depth with a more personal touch entering the proceedings. Castor’s childhood and his relationship with his brother Matt the priest is dwelled upon, we learn more about the nature of demons, adding to the already impressive world-building of the series and his rivalry with the demon Asmodeus finally comes to the fore.

New characters are introduced, including a zombie with a woman’s voice and a team of Catholic exorcists with fewer qualms about eliminating souls than Castor. The overall feel of the book is that of a more pop-culture literate William Blatty, with a fine line in Scouse banter. There’s even a dig at Blair-era Labour cynicism, as well as themes relating to adolescent self-harm.

Castor’s the kind of bloke you’d enjoy having a pint with, but would never want to owe a favour to. Check out this series and enjoy his company – from a distance.

Just as he was about to shut the window, he caught sight of a group of people charging up the street. Three women leading five or six men. They were half-naked and running like maniacs, but the main thing was, they were blue. Really blue blue, like zombies in a cheesy horror movie. It was sick. Their mouths were wide open, and their eyes were black and bugging out of their heads.

Ok lets just stop for a moment. Have you seen the name of the author in this post’s title? Walter Greatshell? What an awesome name! I picked up the book just so I could claim to have read something by a writer with that name.

Now the title itself was a cause for concern. Yes the marauding undead creatures in this book are referred to as ‘Xombies’, but then I did enjoy Charlie Huston‘s vampire series, with its own attendant neologism – vampyres. Then there’s ‘Apocalypticon’ – it sounds like a bargain bin video game. But I put these concerns aside for you, dear blog reader, for I felt the need to bring you word of Walter Greatshell.

Of course I quickly realized this is actually the second in a series of novels. The background to the plot is quickly established in the opening chapters. An engineered virus named Agent X has swept the world (hence ‘X’ombies) and human civilization is in ruins. Sal DeLuca is one of a dwindling number of civilian refugees aboard a submarine approaching the East Coast of the United States. His father died trying to make sure his son was given safe passage on board, but now the teenager has new problems. With the vessel’s commander isolated by a mutinous crew, the ‘non-essential’, passengers, mostly adolescent boys like Sal, are rounded up and sent ashore to forage for food. If they survive they will have proved themselves useful.

There are no women on board the submarine, apart from the sinister scientist Alice Langhorne. She was involved with the experimentations that led to the creation of Agent X. She worked with its creator, Uri Miska, even helped cover up the initial outbreak of the contagion, which was originally intended as an elixir dispensed by the Mogul Cooperative to those that could afford it. Eternal life and rule over the entire world. It all went wrong though and an experimental version of the serum got loose, targeting women and transforming them through a process of asphyxiation into undead Xombies. Alice Langhorne has another ace up her sleeve though, the sole remaining leverage left to her. An intelligent Xombie, the blue-skinned girl known as Lulu, who can command and pacify the marauding hordes on land. Through her Alice might even find a cure for the contagion, that is if she is truly interested in saving what remains of the human race.

This book is quite unusual. I really had a hard time making my mind up about it at first. It begins with a flashback to the beginnings of the outbreak, a useful introduction for those who had not read Xombies: Apocalypse Blues. Greatshell describes an odd scene of prison convicts playing poker in the middle of a rodeo, for the entertainment of locals. Then all hell breaks loose as blue-skinned teenage girls begin assaulting and choking the people in the audience. What am I reading, I thought to myself? Is this some kind of misogynist tract?

Perhaps on the surface it seems that way, but Greatshell has broader ambitions. There are references to Greek myth throughout – female Xombies are referred to as Harpies, or Maenads at times – and the terrified men on board the submarine quickly turn mutinous, attacking one another instead of focusing on survival. There’s a scene with Langhorne and a senior military officer were he notes she is taller than him, older than him and possesses more natural authority than him. I am not sure whether the novel’s themes are a reaction against sexism, or appealing to an outright fear of women. Either way it’s an interesting counterpoint to the macho canon of militaristic sf/horror.

Yes the prose is quite purplish at times and the quotations from a supposed official account of the Xombie epidemic that open the early chapters lack that clarity of language that made Max BrooksWorld War Z so convincing. Still I can’t help but admire the book for doing something interesting with zombie tropes.

A most curious horror novel.

“Who has not heard of the Cauldron Born, the mute and deathless warriors who serve the Lord of Annuvin? These are the stolen bodies of the slain, steeped in Arawn’s cauldron to give them life again. They emerge implacable as death itself, their humanity forgotten. Indeed, they are no longer men but weapons of murder, in thrall to Arawn for ever.”

When I was a kid there was one film that truly terrified me. This was a children’s event movie, promoted with tiny plastic figurines in packs of Kellogg’s Cornflakes. I emerged from the cinema after watching The Black Cauldron twitching with fear at the memory of skeletal warriors and poor Gurgi’s fate.

As it happens the novel Disney based their movie on is quite different (yay for Gurgi!). Bear in mind this is a review of a second book in a series of five titles. I will say that I had no trouble getting to grips with the plot despite having no knowledge of the preceding chapter in Alexander’s series.

Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper to the magician Dallben dreams of becoming a hero. Instead he has to tend to and feed his master’s pig. Granted, the pig in question Hen Wen is a magical pig, with the gift of prophecy, but a pig nonetheless. Life at Caer Dallben is quiet, unbearably so after Taran’s previous adventures fighting against the minions of the dark lord Arawn.

One day a sour-looking young man named Prince Ellidyr rides up to Taran’s pig-pen and in an insulting tone demands to see Dallben. Feeling slighted, the Assistant Pig-Keeper challenges the stranger and receives a firm beating for his trouble before his master breaks up the fight.  Ellidyr and a number of other lords and warriors, including friends Fflewddur the bard with a harp that breaks its own strings if he tells a lie and Doli a foul-tempered dwarf with the ‘gift’ of invisibility, have been invited to Caer Dallben for a council of war.

Even the Pig-Keeper has a seat at the council, much to the disgust of his friend the Princess Eilonwy (as well as the arrogant Ellidyr). Dallben reveals the reason for his calling this meeting. The High King Gwydion has a plan to strike a fatal blow against the undead forces of Arawn, who rules the neighbouring kingdom of Annuvin. The source of his power, The Black Cauldron, must be taken from him and destroyed, at one stroke removing his ability to create his armies of deathless warriors.

Gwydion assigns tasks to everyone assembled, requesting that Taran, Ellidyr and the wise warrior Adaon protect their rear guard at the border of Arawn’s realm and after a night’s rest they set off on their quest.

However, despite all of their planning, Gwydion’s warriors discover that the Black Cauldron itself has been stolen from Arawn. Fflewddur and Doli arrive to warn Taran of the disaster moments before they are forced to flee the Huntsmen of Annuvin, whose strength doubles whenever one of their number is killed. Cut off from their comrades, with the agents of Arawn standing between them and Gwydion’s base, Taran makes the fateful choice to follow the path of the stolen Cauldron into the Marshes of Morva, where he is told three creatures known as Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch live. They provoked Arawn’s anger by stealing his most prized possession and may intend an even more wicked use for the ‘Black Crochan’.

I have not mentioned that Taran is joined by Princess Eilonwy and the comical creature known as Gurgi, who followed the party into the wilderness. Alexander, as this is a children’s book, introduces plenty of pubescent battles of the sexes. There is even a comical scene when Taran insists that she help him ‘gird’, his new sword. “After all,” he added, “you’re the only girl in Caer Dallben”.

The main conflict, however, is not between Gwydion’s armies and Arawn’s deathless hordes, but Taran and the prideful Ellidyr. Over the course of the book, with the help of the wise Adaon, the Pig-Keeper learns to recognize his rival’s true nature.

Alexander draws lightly upon Welsh mythology, putting his own spin on the characters of the Mabinogion. There is also a welcome avoidance of simplistic morality, with goodness and evil identified as the result of choices made by the characters.

Fast-paced and rich, great mythic fantasy.

So I’m a Vampyre. Spelled with a Y instead of an I. Capitalized like it’s a name. Don’t ask me, just tradition I guess. Anyway Vampyre with a Y, that’s the real deal. With an I, that’s for scaring babies.

I’m the kind that scares everyone.

So here we are. Emmet’s breaking his own rules again. One of the conditions I took on as a book reviewer was that I would not read the same author more than once. I definitely would not follow up on a series. Now I have cheated on this before – Michael Moorcock has featured more than once. But I am throwing caution to the wind with this one.

My Dead Body is the final book in Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt Casebook’s series. I reviewed the penultimate book a few months ago. When I saw the last Joe Pitt adventure on the library shelf, I could not stop myself from snapping it up.

Our Vampyre hero got into a spot of bother in the last book. For one he has burned his bridges with every clan leader and gang in Manhattan island’s supernatural underworld.  How he managed this impressive feat, apart from being overly fond of running his mouth off, was by discovering that the largest organised group of Vampyres, the Coalition, has a very ugly secret behind its inexhaustible stock of human blood. Rather than act on this information, he made sure everyone else found out and then walked into the sewers under the city to wait out the inevitable war.

Now an old friend has tracked him down, claiming to have been sent by the estranged love of his life Evie. He passes on a message from her, that he has to do something, take a stand in this conflict he set off between the clans. She also wants him to track down a young couple who have run away. His friend Chubby Freeze is the father of the girl, whose fascination with vampires led her to find one and wonder of wonders, they fell in love. In an added twist, she has become pregnant by her Vampyre lover.

Turns out rival Vampyre gangs the Coalition and the Society have decided this couple are too important to run free. A human/vampire hybrid represents a threat, as it could expose the secrecy they live beneath. It also offers an impossible future to the community, one that represents an incredible amount of power if a party were to control these two young people.

Then add the increasingly disturbing experiments of genius scientist Amanda Horde on the ‘Vyrus’ and you have a potential powderkeg of pent-up violence bubbling away. One entirely of Joe’s making.

Huston ably builds events to a gripping climax, referencing the events of the previous four books to show how much of this last book was seeded from the very beginning. One of the real pleasures of the series is Joe’s own no-bullshit attitude and the quick dialogue. For the sake of contrast, Huston has the pregnant vampire bride Delilah insist on roleplaying even in the midst of a massacre. Her dialogue is laugh out loud funny and possibly a dig at Stephenie Meyer/Anne Rice’s expense.

Joe Pitt suffers, a lot, in these books and in My Dead Body the amount of damage he goes through triples. This night riffs on noir fiction as a vampire protagonist can presumably suffer an even more ridiculous degree of suffering.  His sardonic narration acts as a counterpoint to the pain the character feels, letting the reader know that as extreme as this material might seem, it is meant to be entertaining.

I had a great time reading these books. Check out the Joe Pitt Casebooks for yourself.

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.

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