#BookReview: Little Dead Things #Horror #Flashfiction @Fictisha

Note: I received an advanced review copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

There’s an elegance and, more importantly, a punch to short fiction that often goes overlooked. Publication of an impactful novel, oft-toted as one of literature’s highest accomplishments, not to mention most prose writers’ major goal, drastically overshadows those who prefer their tales to be neatly surmised in just a few thousand words or less. Significantly less, in the case of drabbles, which can only be 100 words.

Jo-Anne Russell’s latest collection, Little Dead Things, is a 41-story collection of flash fiction, stories ranging from 100 word drabbles to just a couple pages. Illustrated by Jeffrey Kosh with a forward by Franklin E. Wales, this book is perfect for those who want a break from the long-haul of the fifty-thousand-plus-word stories others frequently celebrate. Whether this is because you’re short on time or you just prefer sprints to marathons, it’s sure to have a story that suits your speed.

Some stories stand out as being particularly well-written, combining the weird with the mundane in very unsettling ways. “The Apricot Poodle,” a drabble that I won’t describe, since describing something so short would necessitate spoilers, is one such story. “The Fun House” and “Loose Change” are great little jamais vu pieces, where reality shifts sideways and puts some truly odd events at the center of everyday life. Others, like “Mama,” are more psychological in nature, eschewing the weird for tales about ordinary people doing the sorts of things you’d see them getting arrests for on the 5 O’clock news. A few, like “Snake Eyes,” fall smack in the middle, serving as warnings about how regular human darkness might unleash a very different monster. “The Promised Land,” I’d argue, has great potential for another story, short or otherwise.

A few of these carry influence from other notable pop culture figures, such as “A Murder of Crows,” which channels some clear Hitchcock vibes. “Jabberwock Tea” is another one, and those thinking it’s an Alice and Wonderland piece won’t be disappointed (those who’ve wanted to read about zombies in A+W will be thoroughly delighted).

With a collection such as this, not all tales are going to stand out as winners. The presence of some of these far more engaging stories creates a wider, more obvious rift with those that fall short. I won’t specify the ones that didn’t quite measure up, as it’s entirely possible other readers will enjoy them, and I don’t want to discolor that perception ahead of time. While just as well-written, they aren’t quite as original or engaging as the others, and some of the truly unique and bizarre plotlines make these fall flat.

Overall, Little Dead Things lives up to its name, and horror fans are absolutely going to find stories they enjoy. It doesn’t matter if the readers want realistic horror or weird/supernatural showdowns, because these little bites make an overall great meal. As the name suggests, the stories are little and chock full of strange, mysterious, terrible deaths, so this collection is well worth the time. Whether you read it start to finish, or grab an afternoon coffee and knock a few out over your break at work, it’ll be worth the time and money.

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Review of Night Things: Dracula versus Frankenstein by @TerryMWest #horror

Today, I’ll be reviewing Night Things, by Terry M. West, in case the title didn’t give that away. This is a NSFW review on account of some NSFW subject matter in the book, so if you’re easily offended or have a supervisor looming over your shoulder, come back later. Or don’t! Keep reading! Be awesome!

I have to note two things before we begin: One, I reviewed an uncorrected proof, so I’ll be glossing over grammar/style issues, and two, this is a book set in the same universe as several others of his, so it’s possible I missed things that running fans would’ve appreciated.

Onward, to the review!

The snapshot description of this book is as follows (this is part of the description found on Amazon):

Dracula, considered the messiah of the Night Things, builds an unstoppable army as he plots to wipe humanity from the face of the earth. The mysterious New York crime boss, Johnny Stücke (the creation of Frankenstein) wants to keep the peace between the Night Things and humanity. Stücke fears total extermination of his kind, should Dracula unleash his forces on New York.
The fight for the night begins.

…There’s only one problem with this. Roughly half the book isn’t about DvF at all. It’s about Gary Hack, an overweight, heroin-addicted porn director. Granted, it all ties in–Hack shoots a few snuff films where Dracula’s beloved children bite the big one, sparking the war–but there are major parts of the book not directly related to this conflict at all. They’re meant to build up Hack as a supporting character, though he’s ultimately not a sympathetic one.

There are a lot of interesting qualities to this book. The premise, for one: rather than just randomly clashing, the Drac-Frank relationship goes back over a hundred years, to the Fanged One’s adoption of the traumatized creation, enlisting “Primul” in the quest to build up an empire of “night things” (Drac’s rather uninspired name for any non-human entity).

The use of two timelines is another clever way to show both sides to the main baddies. The creature winds up living as a mobster in present-day New York City, where he mercilessly squashes the skulls of those who dare cross him. His relationship to the other, human-led mobs isn’t exactly clear–he says he could crush them all in an instant and has no use for them, but later says he could learn a lot from them–but that’s okay. They’re not really part of this action. The crucial take-away is seeing how ruthless he is in the present, then looking at his gentle past and piecing together how he got so cruel.

West also pays a lot of attention to world building. Readers will get to see all sorts of creatures in action, as well as how they either keep their cover or shout their existence to the world. Creatures involved include a succubus, zombies, werewolves/shapeshifters, witches, and an Egyptian god.

And yet, sometimes all this expansive interest takes the reader’s eye off the meat of the story, leading to flashy distractions. Along the same line, different names are used for each being. Vampires are sometimes called leeches, which is fine, but some werewolves are referred to as ‘shifters’ (as in, shapeshifters, a totally different creature) or furries. “Furries” also appears to be used once in reference to actual furries, making one scene very confusing. There is also a scene where some witches are referred to as necromancers, but they summon demons, not the undead, which isn’t quite right either (however, it is very common to conflate necromancy and demonology).

The only thing I’ll say about the language used is that the characters swing wildly from low-brow slang, i.e. I need some fuckin’ blow, to high-brow diction, like Do not stare into his ruthless, undead eyes. This makes for an inconsistent read, and proofs don’t tend to get edited more heavily than a copy edit, so it’s possible this issue persists.

Lastly, some details are thrown in with little lasting impact. The opening makes a huge deal about Johnny’s musical interests, taking a page or two to discuss how much he loves opera, and one specific classical composition, to make him seem high-class, but this is only mentioned once more in 150 pages. He also adopts a girl with Down Syndrome, but this too is only mentioned once more, and that prompts the mobster skull-crushing I mentioned earlier, making her seem more like plot fodder than a step toward inclusive writing.

I may pick out some flaws, but this was an engaging book overall. Hack may be a generally lousy guy, but at least he knows it, and there’s a refreshing element to his noir-like obsession with self-destruction. Johnny, likewise, is a complex character with some cliche traits and some redeeming ones, and leaves the readers with a reminder that he has some humanity in his many human parts. Dracula isn’t exactly the cool-and-capable vampire of legend, yet seeming a who-knows-how-old creature who is frequently thrown off-guard and subverted was a nice change of pace too.

The summary: Some inconsistencies aside, this was a book with a lot of heart. West clearly has a passion for otherworldly creatures, as shown in the extensive network of monsters into which he drops the readers, and his unusual interpretation offers a nice perspective. A few moments may be more jarring than some would like, but there is humor in these horror-lined pages, and a strong balance between human kind and otherwise. I give this 7.5 stars out of 10. If you’ve got some time and a few dollars, give it a look.

Book review: Haven, by Kay Hooper

Hi everyone,

I try to be nice even when I don’t like a book. People tend to forget that a book doesn’t just happen; there is a full team behind every single one (not including those lone-wolf self-publishers). If something is poorly written, I’ll say so, but if my objection isn’t so objective, I make that clear–with courtesy and respect, when possible.

Haven is a mystery that focuses on a psychic, Jessie, who is part of a private group called Haven. The reason for her being in this group isn’t made clear in this book, but it raises some questions, as her only abilities are seeing ghosts and reading her sister’s mind, both of which are unstable abilities that she isn’t comfortable using. She returns to her hometown after fifteen years to find that a clever and evil man is afoot in her town, and may be targeting her and her sister, Emma.

I had a few issues with this particular work that caused me to stop about 1/4 of the way through. I freely admit that I haven’t finished, and this review doesn’t cover the ending, or even the middle. I’ve been deterred by the main character, Jessie, who–when not sounding pretentious about being psychic by saying how “the mainstream has it all wrong” and then saying things the mainstream would definitely know–is completely and unrelentingly defined by her traumatic backstory.

Now, a difficult past is a good thing for a character. It can add complexity, personal stake in the narrative, and an empathic reason for the reader to continue. The problem is that her trauma is obvious from the first time it’s mentioned, even though the narration treats it like an unfathomable mystery. She mentions needing to uncover/remember what happened to her in nearly every conversation with Emma, and thinks about it when talking to other people. When she doesn’t bring it up, the narration does, which quickly becomes overbearing as it leaves little room for character development and ancillary description.

Another major point for me is the sister, Emma, who has been having nightmares of girls being murdered nearby since a concussion two years prior to the events of the story. While her (male) doctors have told her it’s just a manifestation of the tension of her accident, and the narration makes it clear that the sisters aren’t close, she refuses to mention them even after Jessie asks if there were recent murders in the area. This bothers the hell out of me for two reasons: One, someone does it in nearly every horror/mystery movie/book; and two, it is almost unanimously done by women, and I can’t stand such pushover female characters. Even though she’s described as a powerful businesswoman in her town, she comes across as someone who just sits around and waits to be useful.

The last point for me was the flat side characters. The leader of a psychic FBI unit, Noah Bishop, is the classic, “I don’t say anything because I’m so mysterious, even when the information I have might save your life” character. His wife, Maggie, runs Haven, and is repeatedly described as the office mother (though she doesn’t do anything motherly aside from caring about her staff, which any good boss would do).

The icing here is the killer–some portions of the story are set from the point of view of the antagonist, who the narration describes with such painstaking mystery-genre language that it feels almost like a handbook. He is described as calculating and methodical almost every time he comes up, and can’t seem to stop thinking about “his hunt” and “his trap” that he laid out in his lair in the middle of the woods. Instead of giving the impression of a serial killer, it gives the impression it is trying to sound like a serial killer.

Like I said, I try to be nice, so I will note that, if you aren’t familiar with psychics or detective stories, this would certainly be a nice read. There are other books set in the same universe, so this story probably means a lot more to those who’ve read those as well, and there is a clear enough dynamic between the characters that emotional undertones and sneaking subplots make themselves known.

It is a well written story, and I have to emphasize that, because it’s why I’m going to finish reading. If I get to the end and decide I was wrong about the points above, I’ll post a follow-up. For now, I can’t really recommend it to those well-versed in these topics, but anyone who is looking to get into detective fiction wouldn’t be sorry to pick this up.

That’s all for this week’s book review! If any of you have requests, just let me know (and give me some time to read it). I’m happy to read your books as well, so long as you provide me with a copy. Until next time, be well, my friends.

Book Review/Writing Tips: American Gods, by @neilhimself

Hello, friends.

I’ve been away far too long, and I’ll explain in later posts. This one is focusing exclusively on one of my new favorite, highest-recommendation reads: American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Sure, tons of people–yourself probably included–have heard of this, and I bet a good majority of you have read it. Odds are, you aren’t following me, some indie horror/sci-fi writer, without loving the genre. So why do I say this? Why am I going out of my way to recommend a book by a guy who’s written tons of best sellers?

The answer is simple, though it has two parts.

One: If you’re anything like me, you’re probably distrustful of such lists. Sure, they show who’s selling the most, but there are ways of inflating those numbers, not to mention the fact that it completely bypasses any low-selling book that might, in fact, be pure poetry to read.

Fortunately, American Gods is an absolute treasure. The character development all around is steady and subtle, and the twists never left me saying, “That was random,” rather, I could only smile and say, “Of course. How didn’t I see that coming?” It also has one of my favorite lines from any book, when describing (on page one) the main character, Shadow, being in prison: “He was no longer scared of what tomorrow would bring, because yesterday had already brought it.”

Which brings me to point two: If you, like me, love to write, I can honestly say I’ve learned a lot from this book. Whether blessing or curse, I don’t read anything without trying to gleam some tenet of information. Fiction, non-fiction, comic books, you name it. Everything has something to learn from (and if you don’t believe me about comic books, I’ll be following up soon… and Gaiman will be featured there as well).

There were a number of times I had to stop reading this book to digest what had happened. The pacing is smooth, the flow is logical, the settings well-described but never over done, and while most of my stops were to say, “That was intense,” some of them were to reflect on how he made them intense. There’s something to be said for a writer that can make your heart pound without making it feel like the book is running along at top speed.

American Gods was a casual stroll through the shifting American society that equally like a pleasant dream and a sucker punch. Despite being released almost 14 years ago to the day (forgive me by being off by a few weeks), it remains timely and timeless, projecting the human psyche onto god creation in a way that I have not seen before, and likely will not see again. The notion that mankind creates its gods through worship, whether hanging effigies to the All-Father or maxing out a credit card on the newest perfume, feels like a very dark, and very real, possibility.

Do yourself a favor and check it out, travelers, if you haven’t already. And if you have, give it a re-read. Who knows what gods of yesterday you might find lurking in today’s shadows?