You’re a 15-year-old boy living with a foster family when you awaken to the sounds of shattering glass followed by what can only be violence. This isn’t the first time your short life has been punctuated with instances of horrific bloodshed, and if you choose to join the band of peculiar killers reveling in the chaos they’ve created in what is your third home in only a third as many years, this most certainly will not be the last. Don’t worry, this isn’t a choose-your-own-adventure story, and this pivotal decision is taken out of your hands and placed in the skilled, albeit sadistic custody of Chandler Morrison. Entering the dizzying narrative of Until the Sun, you’ll be swept along currents of blood, strange drugs, and adolescent hormones until you find yourself standing dazed, in the sunlight of a new day, waiting for the ride to end. Morrison thoroughly captures that sense of being caught up in a life that feels entirely out of your control. This extends so far as to include the fact that, as a reader, you’ll see the final moments coming long before our protagonist does…and you’ll experience sensations that range from pity to heart-wrenching sympathy as you witness events unfolding. We’re forced to wonder–if we’re being honest with ourselves–whether we’d be any more capable of wresting control from those who steer us along the destructive path ahead of us if we’d experienced the same tragic and disorienting life of young Casanova. I suspect we’ll never know, and we should be grateful for the fact that the dreadful sequence of events befalling that young man could only happen in fiction. Morrison provides us with a vampire story that is both more and less than that. Until the Sun is a dark, twisted, and perverse coming-of-age tale that abruptly detours us through the worst possible paths to reach the conclusion. A conclusion, I might add, that is equal parts hilarious and cruel in both its predictability and subversion of what a reader might expect when first choosing the book. John Wayne Comunale’s narration is effective in bringing to life the characters who often feel like caricatures of people we might have known in our own lives, or maybe people we’ve been at different points in our lives. There probably isn’t a narrator who would have been better suited for this drug-fueled, bloody, and irreverent combination of various horror subgenres.
Growing Dark truly showcases the eclectic range Triana is capable of in a way a reader would otherwise only discover if they took the time to read half a dozen books. Running the gamut from intense cosmic horror to something that could be considered kid-friendly, there’s no doubt any lover of dark fiction will find something to love in this short collection. From the Storms, A Daughter kicks everything off, sharing the story of a town that’s been going through hard times, and they’re only getting harder as the region gets flooded. First responders in boats are struggling to locate stragglers to take them to safety, but what they find instead is evidence that there’s more to fear than the water. Eaters is a post-apocalyptic excursion into the remnants of the old world, as a small party of hunters is clearing the area of zombies. As with most tales like that, things don’t go smoothly. Triana manages to bring some originality to the topic, and an ending that readers/listeners are unlikely to see coming. Growing Dark is a coming-of-age tale gone wrong, as a farm boy surrounded by sickness and decay desperately wants to prove to his father that he can be a man. Sometimes being a man involves making some hard choices, and sometimes they’ll be bad choices as well. Reunion is an insightful story of childhood regrets and how the mistakes we make can haunt us well into adulthood, altering the courses we travel and where we ultimately end up. Before the Boogeymen Come was the most surprising inclusion in this collection. Triana entertains readers as he breathes life into the monsters who plague the imaginations of young children before media and experience provide new monsters to replace the old. The Bone Orchard is a heartbreaking western tale that could be read, depending on the reader’s perspective, as being either pro-life or pro-choice in its message. An old shootist returns to an old haunt and old love, only to discover there’s a sinister secret behind keeping the brothel running smoothly. Soon There’ll Be Leaves is a character study framed by multiple horrors, the most potent of which being reflection on a life not well-lived and the looming loss of family. Returning to a place he’d sooner never see again, our protagonist is approached by an old flame who proves the adage that one can never go home again, as an attempted affair takes an unforeseen twist. Video Express is a nostalgic exploration of the video rental stores of our youth and condemnation of how we quickly turned our back on the family-run establishments in favor of places where we could easily snag the newest titles. Giving from the Bottom is another character study, this time focused on the horrors of everyday life and the gradual erosion of both one’s ability to care and one’s will to live when nothing seems to turn out as expected. The collection ends with the strangely epic Legends, a vision of an afterlife that is not at all what one might expect. In Triana’s captivating narrative, we discover that the dead–if they’re famous or infamous enough–become eidolons of a sort. Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin come together as paragons of what generations of moviegoers and fans imagined them to be, and as such, they are bestowed with purpose and power to protect the world from infernal entities who may have similarly familiar faces. For me, Legends was the best of the whole collection, providing a glimpse into a world I could see the author fleshing out into a much longer piece. The narrations provided by Dani George, John Wayne Comunale, and Kristopher Triana himself were the best of the bunch. Triana especially did an excellent job of providing his characters with distinctive voices, and in the case of Before the Boogeymen Come a level of caricature that was enjoyable. The additional narrators, Michael Zapcic, Thomas Mumme, Jennifer Mumme, and Kevin McGuire were satisfying as well, just not as memorable as those provided by the three previously mentioned.
Billy and Jeannie are definitely not Jack and Diane. They’re not the sort of couple Mellencamp would immortalize in song. It’s more likely they’d be immortalized by a band like Cannibal Corpse, preferably before the departure of Chris Barnes. Billy Silver is a junkie and an alcoholic, a guitarist and singer, and an all-around degenerate. Despite all of his flaws, and there are many, he’s also captivating and occasionally funny. Within the first few pages, you’ll come to loathe him. That sensation never quite disappears, even as you begin to feel a small amount of sympathy for him along the way. With his life falling apart even worse than it already had, Billy finds his way into a tattoo parlor where the mysterious Talia pays him to obtain a new piece of ink under the pretense of needing practice before the shop officially opens. It doesn’t take long before Billy’s self-destructive nature takes on an altogether more horrific and direct manifestation. Daniel Volpe captures Billy and the other characters who populate his dingy, filth-riddled corner of existence with such detail that you can almost smell the halitosis and urine as the story carries you along. Volpe brings the streets and back alleys of the city to life in crushing, grimy detail that is further enhanced by the narration provided by John Wayne Comunale. These two men together provide us with something as splendid as it is awful. I’m glad I’ve snagged more audiobooks narrated by Comunale because he is not only an excellent writer but a truly amazing narrator.
John Wayne Comunale’s Mage of the Hellmouth is both surreal and captivating. It’s entertaining in the way a lot of subversive fiction is, and the horror of it sort of runs along with a similar style to Jacob’s Ladder and other psychologically unnerving horror stories that make you question what’s real and what’s not along with the characters. Apropos of the Jacob’s Ladder reference, this book even includes a bizarre scene of graphic sex at a party where our protagonist, Jake, is forced to question whether he’s simply too intoxicated or really witnessing the events taking place. It’s a quick read, and it’s well-paced to keep you invested in everything taking place on the page…as you follow Jake from his late-20s slacker, stoner, drunk life of tedium working for the Fam-Mark ice cream company through the progressively sinister experiences and encounters with co-workers and friends as he takes on his new role at the main facility. And when I say “role” it has multiple meanings, as the events in Jake’s life dovetail with an old tabletop RPG he’d played as a child, Mage of the Hellmouth. In the end, this is an example of no good deed going unpunished…as Jake receives the reward for the marginal part he’s played in grand events he had no way of anticipating. The only issue I have with this book is a time jump/recollection that initially seemed like a formatting error. Upon finishing Chapter 7, the content that doesn’t appear until Chapter 10 seemed like it should have followed…making Chapters 8 and 9, Chapters 9 and 10 respectively. The ambiguous shift back to earlier in the story is not a deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination, since the story as a whole was a terrific read just the same, but it was a bit jarring and led to momentary confusion until I’d caught on to what was going on.