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“So, do you think , kiddo?” Though, judging by his son’s disgusted expression, Matthew probably already knew the answer.

Mockingly, Robby answered, “If it moves, you can kill it.”

“Why the sarcasm, I thought you got off on stuff like this.”

“Um, just because you’re now married to my mom, doesn’t mean you know me. You haven’t even known me long enough to know me.”

Originally posted over at Tastes Like Comics.

Robby and his new father Matthew have a strained relationship that they attempt to endure for the woman in both of their lives Janet. Any bonding between the two comes as a struggle, so when Janet suggests Matthew take his new son on a hunting trip he reluctantly agrees, despite feeling the effort will be wasted. After all Robby prefers to play Grand Theft Auto than step outdoors.

Of course both men do have in common an interest in random violence, of the simulated kind. They travel to a Mexican island off the southeast coast to take part in an unofficial tourist hunting package known as Dangerous Hunts: Safari-Style Hunting Practically In Your Own Back Yard. Off the books and run by a seedy character known as Garrick, American huntsmen who want to enjoy slaughtering wildlife over the course of a fun-filled weekend. Robby, however, is less than impressed

Before the two men in Janet’s life can come to an accord, the tour group suddenly finds itself under attack from a different kind of hunt – the undead.

Masters sets the scene quite nicely and as is typical for zombie fiction, the mouldering monsters function more as a metaphorical plot device. In Dangerous Hunt the allegory is the nature of male bonding, how danger can bring them together. The comparison between video game violence and hunting parties is an interesting one, not one that has often been made. Perhaps because hunting is seen as outdoor exercise, whereas gaming is the province of pale-skinned competitive sorts who live on the internet. Instead, this story hints that there is a common root.

I was reminded of David Eddings’s first book High Hunt, which came before his successful career as a fantasy author, as well as the film Southern Comfort which paralleled a hunting party in unfamiliar territory with the occupation of Vietnam. The men in Masters’ novel are unprepared for the devastating zombie assault, but quickly take to headshots and explosives. Being allowed to kill with impunity is shown to be enjoyable to some of the characters, especially the bloodthirsty Daniel, a fellow ‘tourist’ who takes to the combat quite naturally.

As for zombie fans, the creatures here avoid the recent trend of identifying the undead as being the result of some experimental virus, or disease. Instead it is hinted that a naturally occuring plant on the island is responsible, more in keeping with original houdon tales of resurrected murderers.

Overall Dangerous Hunts is an enjoyable and fast-moving short yarn, with an interesting use of the zombie sub-genre tropes. Go check it out.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

What I definitely learned just now is that everything hinges on the words you use. Doesn’t matter what you do in life, you just have to wrap the thing in the right kind of words.

Do you remember the first time you saw a ‘Parental Advisory’, sticker on a CD? What an unusual gesture that was. I especially loved how that black and white symbol got slapped onto rap albums back in the nineties, ensuring premium sales in white middle-class teenager demographics. Here’s this badge that supposedly alerts parents to the insidious content of the album’s lyrics and it’s become a marketing goldmine for records that might not otherwise have been sold.

Funny thing that. To my mind this is all part and parcel of our instant-access voyeuristic culture. Scripted ‘reality television’, phone-in lines for talent shows, programming targeting women with low self-esteem about their body types – this is entertainment now. Not stories with meaning and innovative plots, just ordinary people jumping through hoops to find some temporary catharsis courtesy of the cathode-ray tube.

Television brings no relief for Vernon Little’s problems. His only friend in the small Texan town of Martirio just went on a shooting spree in their school, before killing himself. With the perpetrator dead and no trial to capture the media cycle, it falls to reporter Eulalio Ledesma to create a story, stoking the flames of suspicion in Vernon’s direction. When a witness to corroborate his story that he was not an accomplice to the crimes fails to come forward, Vernon finds himself transformed into Public Enemy number one.

Before he has even set foot in a court-room, trial by media has already judged him a psychopath. Ledesma, who likes to be called Lally, initially befriends Vernon, then seduces his mother and establishes himself as a new father figure for the fourteen year old boy, all in the name of controlling the story. By the time Vernon realizes he is being manipulated by the huckster it is already too late. The town of Martirio was cheated of its chance for revenge against his friend Jesus, and so he has become an accessory to murder. When another shooting tragedy in California hits the news, Lally engineers even more crimes committed by Vernon to scandalize.

Realizing he has no hope of a fair trial, Vernon attempts to run to Mexico, but with no money and televisions blaring his photo in every bus depot it seems he’ll never be able to stop running. Plus he has a secret that even Lally has failed to pry out of him. There is another gun, hidden nearby the school. It has Vernon’s prints all over it.

If Chuck Palahniuk were to reimagine A Confederacy of Dunces, it might come out something like this scorching debut from DBC Pierre. The doomed narrator Vernon sees injustice everywhere, but completely inarticulate, unable to defend himself, let alone condemn the hucksters of this world like Eulalio Ledesma. This Texan small town runs on spite, gossip and innuendo. A loner like Vernon never really had a chance. He encounters incompetent law enforcers, pedophile rings, opportunists and liars, all wanting to profit from his misfortune.

Vernon perceives the world through the moral code of television movies. He cannot understand how he can be found guilty, as at all times he has tried to live by his own set of principles. His friendship with Jesus the shooter only manages to incriminate him. His own mother is easily manipulated into identifying him as a murderer on camera by the sly Lally. Vernon has no one he can trust, no one who won’t betray him to make a quick dollar. It is only when he learns to become more like Lally, like the pimps and liars that have corrupted the world, that he earns a chance to fight back.

This book is written from the confused and hormonally intense perspective of Vernon himself, with a fixation on describing sex organs and bowel movements. As a foul-mouthed Humbert Humbert for the twenty-first century, this teenage narrator presents his own personal spin on contemporary Americana. Crimes are punished in response the degree of sensationalism they attract. Dieting is the height of discourse and innocence is just an invitation to being exploited.

Welcome to the dark heart of contemporary satire. It’s really not that funny a joke.

“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.

And she and Ginny laughed together, a giddy, earthy, delightful laugh, and Marian laughed too. She laughed too and it was all so grown-up. She’d never met any women so young yet so grown-up. So beautiful and no husbands around or downy babies, and if it weren’t for the tubercular rack that ripped through Ginny’s laugh as it further unpeeled, everything would seem too perfect for words.

If James Ellroy were to get in a time machine and travel back to the 1950’s to seduce Patricia Highsmith with the joys of heterosexual coupling (which, given the success of the male lead in The Black Dahlia to do just that I assume he believes is possible. Converting a lesbian that is, not time travel.) I imagine the eventual product of their union would turn out to be a writer like Megan Abbott, whose grasp of period detail and exacting plotting combines the best of both.

Is that too laboured an analogy? Probably.

Taking inspiration from actual events, Bury Me Deep is the story of nurse Marian Seeley, left to fend for herself in a small town in Phoenix by her husband, a doctor who has had to resort to finding work in Mexico due to his troubled past. Lonely and self-admonishing, she blames herself for her husband’s ‘troubles’, Marian is taken under the wing of Louise Mercer, a fellow nurse at Werden clinic. Her new friend passes on all the gossip, lets her young, naieve charge know which doctors have busy hands and how to avoid the endlessly dull Bible sermons of the more religiously inclined members of staff. She also introduces some fun into Marian’s life, inviting her to join her and housemate Ginny in their home where they host wild parties.

All the important men in the town seem to attend these hooch-fueled soirees, most arriving with an expensive gift for the two raucous hostesses. Marian thinks it strange initially, but she learns to go with the flow. She doesn’t even seem too bothered that a brisk trade in stolen pills from the hospital is carried out at these parties. In fact she doesn’t think much of anything after Louise introduces her to Gentleman Joe Lanigan, a dashing local businessman whose company sells to most of the pharmacies in town, has friends in very high places and is gifted with movie star looks. Despite her misgivings and strained loyalty to her husband in Mexico – whom she increasingly refers to as Dr. Seeley instead of by his name Everett – Marian is swept up by the charismatic Joe, their affair in her mind a great romance right out of the pictures. Little does she know that she is set on a course for tragedy that will strike at the heart of her friendship with Louise and Ginny, and reveal just how much of a gent Joe Lanigan really is.

Megan Abbott has taken the real life story of the so-called ‘Tiger Woman’, Winnie Ruth Judd, at the centre of a notorious case in 1931 in Arizona and cherry-picked the details for her own fictionalised account. In many ways I find her approach superior to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. For one, this is a book about women, written from the point of view of a woman, without any of the cloying misogyny that noir fiction sometimes revels in. Female characters seem often to have two roles only, the victim and the femme fatale. Marian Seeley is initially young and naieve, but Abbott invests in her the obvious survival skills of Winnie Judd, whose incredible story I find fascinating. There is also more of a sense of hope here, with the forces of corruption not nearly as monolithic. The language is very detailed and Abbott has a beautiful gift for imagery, describing Gentleman Jim’s maroon hat as having a teardrop crease, or Marian staring out of a train window into the black night and seeing nothing but the reflection of the drunk sitting next to her leering over her shoulder. Finally Abbott never claims to know the truth about the ‘Tiger Woman’, case. This is clearly a fictionalised departure from the events described in the trial. She merely takes some of the events and repositions the characters as she imagines them.

This vision of America captures the period perfectly, where an unstarched nurse’s uniform was the height of excitement and Jim Lannigan’s mayoral ambitions are kept at bay only due to his being a ‘papist’. I enjoyed this book immensely and look forward to reading more of Megan Abbott’s work.

The Judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Blood Meridian is a story about violence and history – the savage underbelly of civilization. McCarthy repeatedly uses  ‘meridian’ to describe the divide between day and night, life and death. It is also the border between America and Mexico, the white man and all other races. This is a novel heavy with portentousness and symbolism, but also seeping with horrific images of death.

The Kid is born in Tennessee. At age fourteen he sets out to find his fortune. He finds work where he can and travels when he has some money to his name. He takes to drinking and fighting in bars. He has two fateful early encounters with men that will later become important in his life. The first is a fellow wanderer named Toadvine. The second is known to most as the Judge. The Kid witnesses him falsely accusing a preacher of sodomy and inciting a lynch mob.

Living by his wits only gets the Kid so far and eventually his aimless life leads him to join a company of soldiers on an ill-advised sortie across the Mexican border. Once across the border, the Kid is catapulted into a life of violence and death. Apache prowl the Mexican desert and wolves track men during the night. Then the Judge finds him once again. He has taken command of a group of hired killers and they have a contract for Indian scalps.

This is the first Cormac McCarthy book I have ever read. I have very little knowledge of him, apart from Owen Wilson’s mocking caricature in The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson was a bit on the nose there. This is compelling writing, with the Judge leading his men across the Mexican landscape like Captain Ahab. Is he really a man, or the devil himself? The book is written in a quasi-Biblical language, ripe with hellish imagery and Jacobean excess. The campaign of violence waged by the Americans is unrelenting, slaughtering peaceful villages and rampaging through unsuspecting townships. One scene in particular has a bar-room fight spill out into the street, encountering a funeral procession and resulting in a massacre. For long passages of the book the Kid himself drops out of sight and we are left in the company of the Judge and his right-hand man Glanton, or Toadvine the Kid’s sometime ally. There is also an ex-priest named Tobin, who does not shirk from killing.

However, the story promises a final confrontation between the Kid and the Judge, the two of them continually meeting  despite all odds. Here, McCarthy sets up a further contrast, another meridian, this time the divide between a man who thinks he is free and one who knows he is master. The Kid is quick to anger, surly and not given to speak much. The Judge on the other hand waxes lyrical constantly, can be charming and kind in action, capable of speaking many different languages. He is also given to lectures on religion and the law, which he uses to confound those who investigate the crimes committed by his men. Beneath all of his culture and wit beats the heart of a monster, unrelenting and cruel. McCarthy has created a truly diabolical villain, one who would destroy anything he cannot control and wipe away all trace of it.

I can see why Hollywood tries to adapt McCarthy to the screen so often. The imagery of Blood Meridian often feels intensely cinematic. I would argue though that this is more due to the author’s use of language, which flows and ebbs on the page, a quality that would be very difficult to replicate on screen. However, this is bloody and intense plotting, certainly not making for a nice evening’s entertainment. In terms of a masterclass though, as an opportunity to observe a writer in full command of his craft, I thoroughly recommend it.

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