Book Reviews

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Forget what you think you know about the contents of this masterpiece if all you know is the cinematic adaptation. Max Brooks’s followup to his excellent Zombie Survival Guide is that rare beast among all the reams of unending apocalyptica: it’s a story that’s as much about the world we live in now as it is a story of surviving hordes of the undead.

It’s a zombie novel where the insights about our world and all its cultures outnumber the flesh-hungry ghouls. It unfolds in short chapters that skip around the globe with delightful grace. There’s no main character, other than humanity itself. From the mountains of China and Russia to the shantytowns of South Africa to — yeah, buddy — the International Space Station — this book never settles down into a solipsistic American perspective. Brooks owns the title of his novel.

That so much fresh thinking could grow out of such tired ground gives me hope for humanity — and all writing in general.

Granted, the voices all end up blending together, and in a collection of alleged oral histories perhaps that’s a not-great thing. Yet as I continued reading, I was almost glad Brooks didn’t go too far with individualized voices because Brooks’s writing is clear and informative and rich in surprisingly well-imagined details.

At nearly every turn, Brooks uses encounters with the undead to speak about something else, something true about the way our various cultures operate. I’m in awe of this m’f’ing book. That anyone has been brave enough to write anything else about the living dead since this thing was published is incredible to me (though I am also grateful for some of those recent efforts, bless their rotting hearts).

I slid this one back on the shelf tonight feeling lucky to have it there.

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Dark Screams: Volume One
Dark Screams: Volume One by Brian James Freeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a huge fan of Stephen King’s Creepshow, I was thrilled to see the long-lost short story “Weeds” in the table of contents for Dark Screams: Volume One. I knew it as “The Lonsesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” but it has even more barbs and thorns in prose form (as well as being a little bit less campy).

It’s a good, tone-setting start to a solid anthology of genuinely creepy stories that harken back to the five-short-story structure of Creepshow itself, or even the original EC Comics. “The Price You Pay,” by Kelley Armstrong, is a fast-paced, twist-a-second revenge story with bloody consequences. Even if I didn’t buy every turn the story took, it was a still a compelling read.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” is a classic tale of a potentially homicidal man in an insane asylum. Well told, though somewhat familiar-feeling in shape and feeling.

The last two stories are the knockouts here, however. Simon Clark’s “Murder in Chains” had me delighted from start to finish. A simple story about a man who wakes up in an underground chamber, chained to a stranger. I never knew where it was going, but it was suspenseful and exciting the whole time.

But when I felt certain that “Murder in Chains” would be my favorite of the lot, Ramsey Campbell’s “The Watched” put on a clinic of how to place one creepy detail after another for terrific effect. I’m still in awe of the construction and execution of this story, which focuses on a young boy, a spooky cop with odd requests, and the neighbors who live next to the boy and his grandmother. Well done story with a pitch-perfect ending.

So some stories knocked my socks off while others were a bit more average, but there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. I thought this short anthology was a whole lot of fun, and I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for volume two.

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Next by Michael Crichton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So I used to really love Michael Crichton. Pretty much until he wrote the screenplay for Twister and things started to go downhill. The sequel to Jurassic Park was dreck. Timeline was borderline unreadable, and then he denied the influences of human activity on climate change in State of Fear. Oh, heavens. Crichton had lost his mind, it seemed to me.

Prey was okay. Kinda liked that one.

But whatever. Life goes on. Time passes. And I came to miss his peculiar blend of cardboard characters and crackling plots, infused with his brilliant gift for turning science into mental candy. So, okay, I picked up Next, hoping it would at least be fun.

And … what a mess! Readable, sure. But WOW! It’s certainly not a one-star book, given it’s convincing views on genetic research and patent law. It also features a subplot that I feel was stolen by the recent film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It didn’t bore me, either — hell, it barely stuck to a single plot-line long enough to do that. But the characters are so numerous (this thing actually has no main character), I was still waiting for the thing to start when it ended, more or less arbitrarily. Crichton said he was trying to model his book after the human genome, where the various plot strands were genes, and you never knew how important they were or what they were actually doing there.

Well, ok, then. Mission accomplished, I guess.

This book had the curious effect of endearing me to its author, if only for how gloriously off-the-rails he’d gone. This book is one strange mutant of a pop-science novel.

Good news is that last year the US Supreme Court invalidated gene patents. Who knows what role Crichton’s writing played in the formation of that decision, but it’s sad that he wasn’t alive to see it.

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The Dark Man: An Illustrated Poem
The Dark Man: An Illustrated Poem by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beautiful volume, full of dense and dark and menacing illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne, this short poem tells the story of a creepy wanderer, who inspired the character of Randall Flagg, a familiar figure for anyone who has read The Eyes of the Dragon, The Stand, or The Dark Tower cycle.

While the poem itself runs only a few lines (and could probably fit on a single printed page), it was a real treat for a hardcore fan of King’s work such as myself. Perhaps too slight a tale for most readers, it’s a welcome treat to have this one on the shelf between The Secretary of Dreams and my Dark Tower hardcovers. Cemetery Dance (once again) has done a wonderful job turning a horror book into a work of art.

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North American Lake Monsters: Stories
North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nathan Ballingrud’s debut collection of short stories sank its claws deep into my brain and refused to let go until I’d read the whole thing. He writes clear, powerful tales, where the monsters in question flush out his characters’ humanity in traumatic clarity. Most of these don’t end well, but they’re all gorgeous pieces.

Often, the obvious monster of the story is not the worst monster. Take, for example, the story “Wild Acres,” where an early, bloody attack suggests an obvious sort of supernatural tale. Yet Ballingrud doesn’t go down that road, instead taking the reader through the emotional consequences of surviving the ordeal and the choices made during such an event. Or the eponymous “North American Lake Monsters” itself, where an unidentifiable beast washes up on the shore of a lake and yet remains only a lightning-rod metaphor for the things going on within the family that discovers it.

[Personal note here: I read that story with a mixture of adoration and sadness, as I recently submitted a story that featured almost exactly the same situation. Ugh. The outcome in my tale was far different, but it’s still quite frustrating to be scooped on a story I really liked.]

In another standout piece, “Crevasse,” about a sled team in Antarctica running into trouble, Ballingrud manages to concoct a Lovecraftian story that challenges even the best of Lovecraft’s work.

My favorite story in the collection is, unexpectedly, “Sunbleached,” which is a story about a young kid’s relationship with a vampire in his basement. I’m sick to death of vampire tales, and yet this one bowled me over. The details were captivating, and I still can’t shake the ending.

This collection represents some of the finest literary horror I’ve read since devouring Shirley Jackson’s short stories. I’m an instant fan of Ballingrud, and North American Lake Monsters is a powerful, disturbing beast.

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Off Season
Off Season by Jack Ketchum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The legend of Sawney Bean, the mythical Scottish cannibal who fathered a clan of 48 insane children who chomped their way through a thousand corpses, relocates to rural, coastal Maine, where six New Yorkers are terrorized by some inbred lunatics over the course of a rather harrowing night.

Oh, if only they knew … the truth is so much worse! You should see what things are like inland!

I kid. I kid my homeland.

This book was an engaging read, even if I didn’t feel like I had a real solid grasp on the characters. I continually got the cops confused (who was the young one? who the older one? their dialogue often sounded exactly the same, and they both seemed equally competent). I eventually memorized everything and got it straight, but in the beginning it was a bit of a nightmare to keep things sorted.

Also, I feel like the story itself echoes too many other things. For starters, it’s based on the whole Sawney Bean stuff, which has been done a lot over the years (notably as Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes; I was talking about the plot of this to a friend over lunch, and she smiled and called it, The Coastal Cliffs Have Eyes, which is pretty appropriate). I do like this version much better than Wes Craven’s, but the story suffers for the familiarity.

There’s also a moment toward the end of the story that recalls another scene from a Wes Craven film, this time from The Last House on the Left. And a climactic moment is a nigh-on direct rip-off of a scene in George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead. I think Ketchum is aware of these grafts, but even so, once again, it saps the story of some of its luster to have so many echoes of other stories.

After reading the afterword to this revised version, I am so freaking glad I read this one and not the version that came out in 1988. I agree with the changes Ketchum made.

But all that doesn’t and shouldn’t take away from the simple fact that this is another Ketchum novel I couldn’t stop reading. I’m looking forward to diving straight into the first of the two sequels and seeing where he takes this next (and if someone is going to end up swinging from the Hairy Tree).

One more note: I bought this for Kindle from Amazon, and the formatting might have cost my appreciation of the story a modicum of enthusiasm. Whatever they used to OCR this book should never be used again!

Here’s a sample image of what my copy looked like … oh yeah … you know a book has to be fairly gripping to keep you reading through crap like this …

that's some ugly text

careful with that text, eugene

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Nightmare Magazine, November 2012
Nightmare Magazine, November 2012 by John Joseph Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this second issue fairly well, although the four featured stories here all seemed a bit too opaque for me to truly fall in love with any of them. I see that they’re good stories, though, even if they left me a little cold. Ramsey Campbell’s “At Lorn Hall”, a not-quite-interesting-variation on the haunted house story where the haunted house is part automated museum, was the only real miss for me (just too much description of beds, bureaus, and drapes, oh my!), but even that story had great atmosphere (in fact, it’s all atmosphere–ponderous, ponderous atmosphere!). I did like the nice touch of showing another anonymous character escaping halfway through the story (a great choice, and one that has had me thinking ever since).

Poppy Z. Brite’s story, about a man accompanying a woman to have an operation, was my favorite this month — some beautiful prose, and the characters worked for me. I don’t entirely buy the reaction to the events at the end of the story, but for me it’s all about the evidence the guy sees that the woman fell on the sidewalk. The story achieved a real sense of melancholy and loss. Liked this piece a lot, even if some of its final moments seem unlikely to me.

“Construction Project” was cute and experimental, but the ending struck me as a little ordinary. “Graves” would have been perfect without the bookends referencing the contrived nonsense of the narrator’s sleep disorder.

Not sure what to make of “The H Word” this month. Didn’t really dig it, I guess.

Overall, though, another interesting group of stories, and I enjoyed the second half of the Peter Straub interview.

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In the Tall Grass
In the Tall Grass by Stephen King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not horrible, but sort of annoying. Two people pull over to try and help people lost in a field of tall grass. Madness ensues, and, of course, they can’t get out of the grass once they get in the grass.

It’s like Day of the Triffids meets Children of the Corn. But both of those others stories are better.

I liked the ending (apart from the goofy tag, which I think could have been accomplished with one sentence), but the rest of it … I don’t know. I didn’t get into these people. I didn’t really care. I was mostly bored by this. Even for a short read, it felt like work.

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The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Okay, now I need like … a cup of Ovaltine and a mid-80s Tom Hanks film. I just feel like I watched a True Crime marathon and need to scrub the naked depravity from my brain.

Is there a sub-genre of children chained in the basement stories? Because this book is like that, if you crossed it with Lord of the Flies to make it even more unpleasant. I wanted to reach through the page and strangle everyone involved.

Unfortunately for me, when I get angry at a story, I can’t help but keep reading.

It’s also based pretty much on a true story, where two sisters were left with a horrible woman in Indiana and tortured by the woman, her sons, and some horrible neighborhood kids. It’s an incredibly powerful book, but the simple fact of it being so closely tied to a very real incident really fucks me up.

In the author’s note, Ketchum claims he toned some of the real-life details down.


And I had such faith in humanity to begin with!

This is why sometimes the horror genre needs to go supernatural. Supernatural abilities come in handy in stories like this. Just ask the “I like you” girl from V/H/S how she deals with bad situations …

I’m sorry. Bad joke. I’m in a dark place right now.

Actually, that’s true. There are no lights on and it’s 1:20am.

Someone want to try and sell me on the ol’ everything happens for a reason bit again?

Now … about that Ovaltine…

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