Monday, November 1, 2010

Johnny Halloween

Book 64: Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season by Norman Partridge, isbn 9781587672231, 125 pages, Cemetery Dance Publications signed limited edition, $30.00

I've been meaning to read more of Norman Partridge's work since I literally tripped across his novel DARK HARVEST a couple of years ago on a business trip to Phoenix. I had left the hotel without any reading material, and if there's one thing I hate it's sitting at dinner in a restaurant with nothing to read other than the menus. This has happened more than once, and occasionally has led to me purchasing books I never finish reading. DARK HARVEST was one of the best impulse buys I ever made. So when I saw that Cemetery Dance was issuing a new Partridge collection with a Halloween theme, I couldn't resist ordering it and then letting it sit until the holiday weekend.

There are only 6 stories, plus an introduction and an essay, in this slim volume. The introduction and the final story are brand new; the other 5 stories and the essay are collected from various other sources but were all new to me. Only one story, "Black Leather Kites," disappointed me and even that story held some charm (mostly in imagining what it would look like on the big screen or HBO). My favorite story in the book is probably the title story, about a sheriff recalling the crime he stopped when he was a teenager and how that comes back to haunt him in the present. I was also looking forward to the Dark Harvest-connected story that concludes the book, "The Jack O'Lantern," but I will caution anyone who has not read the book -- this story contains a fairly significant spoiler about the events of the novel. If you've read DARK HARVEST, "The Jack O'Lantern" will make your heart-rate race the way the book did, and will fill out the picture of just what goes on in this small town on the night of The Run.

The essay in the book, "The Man Who Killed Halloween," is Partridge's first person account of what it was like to live in Vallejo, California, at the time of the Zodiac killings, and how that unsolved crime spree forever changed the way that town celebrates Halloween (and most other holidays, I would think). Non-fiction rarely scares me or unsettles me the way fiction does, but the story is so personal to Partridge that I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as he described not on the crimes but the way most people found out about them. Perhaps it's because I've been reading IT recently, but Partridge's essay connected strongly with my reaction to the 1950s sections of that novel.

Definitely a good read if you can get your hands on a copy.

Individual story reviews can be found here.

Trysts by Steve Berman

Book 63: Trysts: A Triskadecollection of Queer and Weird Stories by Steve Berman, isbn 9781590210000, 148 pages, Lethe Press, $13.00

I first came across Steve Berman's work when I ordered his short novel VINTAGE from the InsightOut Book Club (an arm of the Book of the Month Club aimed at gay and lesbian readers). I enjoyed the book, as you can see from the review found here. I posted my review and discovered that Steve is here on livejournal, both on his own journal and through the journal for the publishing house he runs, [info]lethepress . This gave me the opportunity to seek out more of Berman's work, which has most recently appeared in the anthologies PAPER CITIES (his story reviewed here) and THE BEASTLY BRIDE (his story reviewed here). I ordered both of Steve's personal short story collections from Lethe, and have finally gotten around to reading the earlier of the two, TRYSTS.

There are twenty stories in TRYSTS, and several of them show the rough edges of a writer who is just starting out. These stories date from the late 90s through the collection's publication in 2001. Four of the twenty stories take place in Berman's dark-fantasy world of The Fallen Area, a section (or perhaps all) of Philadelphia that has been cut off from the rest of the civilized world because something has happened to change it -- magic works, people develop Talents or Afflictions, normal people struggle to survive a world they no longer hold primacy in. All four stories feature individuals new to the Fallen Area who find themselves in over their heads; some adapt better than others.

Not all of Berman's stories are Dark Fantasy / Horror. "His Paper Doll" is nearly whimsical and "Beach 2" isn't really supernatural at all. Some of the stories are homages to other authors. "The Resurrectionist" owes a lot to Poe (and perhaps Hawthorne), while "Path of Corruption" is positively Lovecraftian. A few of the stories didn't work for me (notably "Left Alone," which feels incomplete, and "Stormed and Taken in Prague," which seems too focused on the sex the main character has to really get across the kind of hole the character is potentially falling into) but even those stories don't lack for potentially interesting premises. I would recommend this collection for the Fallen Area stories in particular, and for a look at early Berman.

Reviews of the individual stories can be found here and here.

Feed By Mira Grant

Book 62: Feed by Mira Grant, isbn 9780316081054, 599 pages, Orbit, $9.99

I have to admit up front that I only picked up FEED because it was the October entry in the online book club run by [info]calico_reaction and I always read as much horror as I can in the month of October anyway. I also have to admit that really, I'm not a zombie fiction fan. For me, zombies work great on the screen (I love the original Romero trilogy as well as 28 Days/Weeks Later) but don't seem to have the same hold over me in print. So I was skeptical that I'd really get anything out of this book other than a chance to say "I told you so" and an addition to my year's total page-count.

Thankfully, I can say my skepticism was wrong. While I don't think FEED is anywhere near a perfect book, I can say that overall it worked for me: the characters clicked and a couple of the action sequences got my heart racing a bit.

In 2014, super-cures for cancer and the common cold are released to the air, and combine to create Kellis-Amberlee, the virus that brings the recently dead back to life with an insatiable hunger. Twenty years later, people live in rigidly-defined hazard zones based on the likelihood of encounter with Infected (humans or other mammals). Society hangs in there under a constant cloud of fear, and faith in traditional news media is low. Twenty years after the Uprising, more people trust Bloggers in the world of FEED, and two of the most well-regarded bloggers are "Newsie" (hard-news reporter) Georgia Mason and "Irwin" (adventure-based reporter) Shaun Mason, a brother-and-sister team aided by their technical support and fiction-writing third partner "Buffy" Messionier. The team is tapped by Senator Peter Ryman to accompany his Presidential Campaign, from before the party primaries all the way up to Election Day if they go that far. Georgia, Shaun, Buffy and new team member Rick discover they are on to the biggest story of their careers, and it's bigger than just following a candidate around.

The book starts off a bit rocky, in my opinion, with a lot of the world-building info repeated almost ad nauseum not just from chapter to chapter but occasionally from page to page. Most of the first section of the book (which is divided up into five distinct sections) feels like an info-dump. While it establishes the characters of Georgia, Shaun and Buffy very clearly, it also repeats so much information over and over again that you begin to wonder if Georgia, who narrates, is the reporter she's built up to be. But if you can get past the first hundred pages, the narrative kicks in and the characters spend a lot less time repeating themselves. The baseline information about the world they live in has been driven home through repetition and the story can begin to move. The book gets good when it stops re-explaining how people get infected and what's been done to protect the populace and starts getting into what the book is really about: political machinations and the use of fear as a means of controlling the populace. Georgia and the team get an up-close-and-personal look at the political side of terrorism as well. The action sequences also get stronger, more pulse-racing, as the book goes along; it's almost like Grant knowingly saves her best action-prose for the end, although the fight in Eakly occurs relatively early in the book and contains at least one very tense moment.

To say too much more about the twists the book takes would be to spoil it for anyone who has not read it yet. I can say a few things. The encounters between Team Mason and the zombies start out almost mundane (see how silly we are, poking zombies with sticks to get higher ratings for our blog) and grow deadly serious (a multi-car-wreck has lasting effects on the team) right up to the very last pages. I was pretty sure I had tagged who was behind the terrorism early on, and I'm sure most astute readers will manage to figure it out too. But sometimes, knowing who the "big bad" is and knowing how events will reveal that "big bad" to the characters are two very different things, and the direction the reveal took very definitely surprised me. Each chapter ends, and each of the five sections begins, with quotes from the blogs of Georgia, Shaun, Buffy and Rick; flipping back through the book after I'd reached the end, I was not surprised to find that most of them gained a "you should have seen that coming, gentle reader" tone in hind-sight. If I have any complaint about those quoted passages, it is that they don't seem to have unique voices. For all the characters talk about how Newsies, Irwins and Fictionals approach the news with distinct voices, there wasn't anything particularly individual about the posts of Georgia, Shaun and Rick (Buffy is set apart because she's writing poetry about the events around them, not non-fiction reportage).

I can also say (and I doubt anyone would be surprised) that FEED is the first of a trilogy. I'm not sure how quickly I'll rush out to pick up book two, DEADLINE. I think FEED stands well enough on its own that I don't necessarily feel the need to see the story continued; I guess my decision will rest solely on how much I miss the surviving members of Team Mason by the time the new book hits the stands.

Haunted Legends

Book 61: Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas, isbn 9780765323019, 347 pages, Tor, $15.99

I have never been disappointed with any anthology edited, or co-edited, by Ellen Datlow, and HAUNTED LEGENDS continues that trend. While there are a few stories in this collection that didn't really work for me, the majority of them did.

The theme is exactly what the title implies: those local, "home-grown" tales of hauntings and other oddness that you often find retold in poorly-edited "local legends" tomes sold in airports kiosks and tourist-trap gift shops. Datlow and Mamatas' edict to the participants in this anthology was to rescue those local legends from poorly-written retellings and to give them new life -- to make them universal while not sacrificing their local flavor. And most of the authors succeed.

There are 20 stories in the collection. My favorites are "As Red as Red" by Caitlyn R. Kiernan, "Shoebox Train Wreck" by John Mantooth, "Tin Cans" by Ekaterina Sedia, "Return to Mariabronn" by Gary A. Braunbeck, "The Redfield Girls" by Laird Barron, "Between Heaven and Hull" by Pat Cadigan, and "Chucky Comes to Liverpool" by Ramsey Campbell. With the exception of the Kiernan and Campbell stories, they all have to do with transportation-related ghosts -- something I didn't realize until I listed them all together like this. There are a couple of stories that disappointed me, notably "The Folding Man" by Joe R. Lansdale and "Down Atsion Road" by Jeffrey Ford, but not every collection can be perfect.

Even though Halloween is over as of a few minutes ago here on the east coast, I recommend seeking this collection out if you like "local legends" and "home-grown ghosts." It's worth the effort.

More detailed story-by-story analysis can be found here and here.