In a career punctuated by numerous surreal horror stories, The Town might be Bentley Little’s most surreal book of them all–and that says something. Steeped in the Russian spiritualism and mysticism of the Molokan immigrants to the United States and Mexico, Little introduces readers to a religious sect about which most people know little to nothing. I’m well-versed in world spirituality, and even I had little understanding of Molokan philosophy and culture. When Gregory Tomasov won the California lottery, he didn’t necessarily strike it rich. He did earn enough to move his family back to his hometown in rural Arizona, where he believes his children are safer than in Los Angeles. At first, the homecoming seems to work out nicely, though strange occurrences are popping up. It isn’t long before the whole world around them appears to be going mad. It all has something to do with Jedushka di Mudvedushka, the Owner of the House–a Russian superstition–and the banya (bathhouse) on the property where the Tomasovs moved. Little manages to keep the reader guessing what might come next as he ratchets up the tension and defies expectations at every opportunity. Nothing can be taken for granted as the narrative propels us toward a ghastly and horrific conclusion from which only some will walk away. David Stifel’s narration suitably captures the accents of various characters, and he provides listeners with a thrilling experience while at the same time delivering the narrative with an unusual drawl and cadence that is occasionally off-putting. It works for the story in question, but I’m not sure how much of that was intentionally applied for this audiobook and how much was just the narrator’s manner of speaking.
S.P. Doyle is a banker, and he’s up to some shenanigans when we first meet him. That much should be expected of anyone disreputable enough to become a banker, especially an ex-junkie. An unexpected promotion provides Doyle with an opportunity to set off on a quixotic mission to do some good with his improved access, seeing himself as a hero who can take down the corrupt institution from the inside. To accomplish his lofty goal, Doyle will need some chemical assistance. Meth, it’s said, is one hell of a drug, but Hex makes meth look positively prosaic by comparison. As Doyle’s consumption becomes increasingly massive, the threads of the conspiracy he believes he’s unraveling within the bank’s records grow more convoluted and seemingly absurd. With Deckard, his pet turtle, as the only voice of reason in Doyle’s life, nothing is stopping the erratic and manic banker from slipping off the rails. Unfortunately for Doyle, the conspiracy he’s stumbled across is far more sinister and far-reaching than even his feverish, drug-addled imagination could conceive. Before long, Doyle’s swept up in a dizzying world of occult forces, reality-bending drugs, insane body modifications, corporate assassins, near-immortal doctors performing unspeakable experiments, and giant gorilla-like monstrosities–referred to as Skullcrackers–who speak with the voices of the dead. What possible chance could Doyle and a small band of resistance fighters have when struggling against such insurmountable odds, at least without making sacrifices that test the limits of what it means to be human? Jeremy Robert Johnson has created a lunatic narrative that defies genre, incorporating elements of horror, science fiction, bizarro, and crime fiction into a captivating melange that’s sure to make any reader feel like they might be on the same drugs as the unlikely hero. The most amazing accomplishment of Johnson’s Skullcrack City is that the diverse threads of this story remain straight and easy to follow, a testament to the author’s extreme skill and attention to detail.
Things haven’t been going well for Ross Lowry. He’s lost his engineering job and struggled to find a new source of income. His troubles are essentially ignored by members of his family, many of whom had no difficulty accepting his assistance when he was in the position to offer it. All of that begins to change when his cousin, Lita, and her husband, Dave, invite Ross to spend some time at their ranch in the isolated, small town of Magdelena, AZ. There’s something about the peace of being there that makes him feel like he can take them up on their offer of staying for an extended period. It seems like an excellent opportunity. Ross figures that he can sublet his place in California while assisting Dave and Lita around the ranch and continuing his online job search. Everything seems fine at first. But during the New Years’ celebration at Cameron Holtz’s ranch, when the celebrants fire their guns into the sky, something other than spent ammunition comes falling down. From that point on, everything begins to change. Animals begin dying. Those that don’t die, begin undergoing strange and unsettling transformations, both physical and behavioral. It isn’t just the animals, though, as the residents of Magdelena change as well. The status quo shifts in unpredictable manners as fortunes and positions within the community go topsy turvy. Will Ross and his small group of friends and family be able to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late for them to avoid a fate similar to seemingly everyone else? What is the monstrous thing being worshipped on Cameron Holtz’s ranch, and is it something worthy of adoration? While this isn’t the best of Bentley Little’s work, it is as deeply unsettling and imaginative as anything else he’s written. Elements of body horror and psychological horror meld perfectly with supernatural and spiritual elements to create a narrative that demands the reader/listener not turn away. Joe Barrett’s narration captures the confusion and desperation Ross and the others experience as the story grows progressively more disturbing and unreal. The characters are distinctly voiced and three-dimensional.
Celestial/Chthonic provides the reader with two vastly different stories delivering a familiar hallucinatory characteristic one might expect from Arzate, if one has been exposed to some of his other writing. Angel Lust escorts the reader on a journey that blurs the lines between fiction and reality, not only for the reader but for Sylvia as well. Is there something strange taking place? Is this some recurring, disorienting nightmare or is the actress simply supplying us with a spectacular example of method acting? I know which interpretation I choose. You’ll have to find your own. Outhouse Boy is equal parts heartbreaking and disgusting, telling the tale of an unwanted pregnancy and an infant cast away in filth. Surviving, against all odds, the infant grows into a young man hoping for the same companionship we all crave. These two stories definitely show the reader both the range and distinct flair in style and substance that will continue to mark Arzate as a fantastic writer.
This two-story collection is available as part of the 31 Days of Godless event, celebrating Halloween at http://www.godless.com. You can pick it up for yourself by going to the site or by downloading the app to your mobile device. The link is below:
Attempting to provide a traditional review of Reekfeel’s three Alien Sex Fluids titles would be to perform a disservice. It could be argued that this is simply me attempting to rationalize the fact that I am in no way capable of properly reviewing the material contained within these shorts. Packed with a sort of free association or stream of consciousness writing that more accurately resembles poetry than narrative prose, Reekfeel’s Alien Sex Fluids plays fast and loose with both language and structure. One almost has simply to let the words–the sounds and visual elements implicit in those words–flow over and around them, dragging the reader along through the cacophony of it all. The free-flowing, anti-literature qualities are most pronounced in Alien Sex Fluids: Experiment 1, where we’re introduced to Nyarlathotep of Lovecraftian fame, and reinterpreted by the author. This is not the being/creature/god as good ol’ Howard Philips wrote it, but rather a mischievous and whimsically cruel thing prone to juvenile outbursts and toilet humor. We are also introduced to the beings/people ostensibly conducting the experiments–or are they the subjects of the experiments?–named after various elements of the periodic table. We’ll get to know them in greater detail in further installments of the series. Reekfeel also takes this time to introduce us to the inhabitants of the garden, strange, child-like creatures without discernable form or function as we perceive it. There’s no conceivable way I could describe the activities during that interlude, and you’ll have to read it for yourself if you want to better understand what I mean. Alien Sex Fluids: Experiment 2 takes on a more prose-like structure in part, diving more into the narrative elements of the overall story being constructed/deconstructed by Reekfeel. We focus more strongly on Selenium, and it’s a strange reversal of norms that the revelation of a dream is more coherently literary than the surrounding material. In Alien Sex Fluids: Experiment 3, we get to witness Reekfeel inserting themself into the narrative in a rather tongue-in-cheek sense, providing a sort of halfhearted apology for how challenging it is to follow along with dialogue from Bismuth as an RPG of some kind is being played to assist Selenium(?). Of course, this only serves to upset Nyarlathotep, who is sharing this story with us through Reekfeel as a conduit. I’d like to say that Experiment 3 continues the more coherent aspects of the narrative as we’d experienced in Experiment 2, but I’d be lying to you, and I’m not a liar! The vast majority of this installment of the series takes place within and is focused around the role-playing taking place, and Reekfeel’s attempt to clear up the mess of multiple dialogues only serves to make it all more of a mess. It’s virtually impossible, as you might understand, to provide a proper review of Alien Sex Fluids, but it’s worth taking the time to dive into the tumultuous, disorganized, yet strangely calculated and lunatic-by-design story you’ll witness unfolding. This is, after all, something being conveyed to us, through Reekfeel, by the crawling chaos itself. If it weren’t indicative of madness, it wouldn’t be authentic. One thing I can say for sure, there’s a certain brilliance and creative imagination impossible to ignore in the distorted, untethered, insanity of Reekfeel’s work.
Experiment 3 was released as part of the 31 Days of Godless event over at http://www.godless.com You can pick up all three installments of Alien Sex Fluids by going to the website or by downloading the app to your preferred mobile device. The links to the three current volumes are below:
It begins in 2005, with the unforeseen devastation of a college student’s head in the back of a Japanese classroom. Split down the center, with a sudden burst of blood and gore, the other students don’t have a chance to react before tentacles begin emerging from the space now present between the two halves of the boy’s head. This horrific experience is the first of the anomalies on record. With that graphic, visually potent scene, Henk Wester drags the reader into his unfolding novella, The Cosmic Anomaly. If you don’t consider that a tantalizing first glimpse of the world he’s preparing to show us, I don’t know what else you’d be looking for. Wester provides the reader with a brief overview of the succeeding years, as anomalies become increasingly common, ranging from the simply peculiar to the utterly horrific before introducing us to Anton, Irma, Bernie, and the other Splenmalies creators. A South African YouTube channel focused on exploration and exploitation of anomalies, the Splendmalies crew exclusively provides their massive viewership with fraudulent cases, banking on the–largely American and European–subscribers knowing little to nothing about what’s going on in Africa. That is until Bernie decides they need to go big or go home. By venturing into De Aar, a town abandoned by the residents who managed to survive the high rate and destructive level of anomalous activity there, Bernie sees nothing but dollar signs and fame in their futures. As the story races toward its gripping conclusion, Wester displays great imagination and dedication to bringing the conditions in De Aar to surreal, terrible life. Hellraiser meets Silent Hill is perhaps the best way I can conceive of describing what the reader is in for, and that only provides the bare minimum of preparation. As Henk Wester introduces us to his native South Africa in a form that, thankfully, should never exist, we realize just how much smaller the world has gotten over recent decades. College students and young adults are the same worldwide, or so it would seem–that is to say, stupid and short-sighted.
This title will be available through Godless on September 30th, before presumably becoming available through other channels a short while thereafter. You can obtain a copy for yourself by going to http://www.godless.com or by downloading the Godless app on your smart phone, tablet, or eReader of choice. The link for this title is below:
If you haven’t read Arzate’s Elaine, I can vouch for the fact that it’s not necessary to enjoy I’m a Marionette. I also haven’t read the story that sets the stage for what we discover in these few pages. Amy wakes up in what appears to be an abandoned, run-down hotel room. Surrounded by filth and unfamiliar with how she found herself there, she grabs her purse and makes her way to her car parked outside. The atmosphere is oppressive and unsettling, and Arzate maintains that atmosphere throughout the tale. From that auspicious beginning, we soon discover that Amy, along with her mourning parents, has been searching for information regarding her missing brother, Chris. The last thing she remembers was deciding to purchase a pack of cigarettes at a convenience store before finding herself in the grimy hotel room. I’m a Marionette perfectly captures the fluid dream logic that makes the worst nightmares so challenging to shake. Amy finds herself led along by impulses she only barely comprehends–and certainly does not control–as she meanders through a world that feels only slightly like the real world she expects. We can’t help but witness Amy’s unsteady travel through this surreal, nightmare version of Wisconsin, as helpless as the dreamer when they don’t know they are dreaming. I couldn’t help but appreciate Ben Arzate’s rather different interpretation of a train station, as Amy flips through the apparently empty radio channels only to find one station broadcasting what sounded like the constant thrum of an approaching train. I found myself thinking, “That’s a different sort of train station.” I immediately picked up Elaine after finishing this story, and I suspect you might do the same. If it’s half as captivating and unnerving as I’m a Marionette, it’ll be worth the price of admission for sure. The three poems contained within the Godless exclusive edition feel perfectly in line with the story that precedes them, carrying the same surreal, dreamlike horror beyond the conclusion of the story itself.
This edition is exclusive to http://www.godless.com or from the Godless app, available on your favorite mobile devices. The link is below:
This review was originally written in July of 2015
On the surface Lost River is a devastating portrait of urban decay after the housing collapse, delving into the virtually empty remnants of what were once thriving Detroit neighborhoods…but it ends up being so much more than that. Ryan Gosling proves himself to be perhaps more talented as a writer and director than as an actor, which is an impressive feat considering just how good he really is as an actor. As grim and heartbreaking as the story is, there is a sense of stubborn hope and refusal to give up threaded throughout the narrative. In the desolate and unsettling environment and conditions in which the movie takes place we find Gosling displaying intense imagination and creativity as he weaves a story that is as much dark fantasy as it is drama. Matt Smith (yes, that Matt Smith, The Doctor) portraying a deeply unstable and psychotic antagonist taking control of the neighborhood is fantastic opposite Iain De Caestecker (probably best known for his role in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in his role as a son desperate to help his family survive by stealing copper from the abandoned buildings around where they live. Christina Hendricks (Saffron from Firefly) is amazing as the mother driven to extremes trying to keep her home and her family together. Honestly, I can’t think of anything I disliked about this movie and I am damn glad that I took the time to watch it. Gosling’s writing and directing are about perfect, the acting is superb, the filming locations manage to get under the viewers’ skin and create an atmosphere that truly works with the beautiful score to enhance every aspect of the story that’s being told, and the cinematography is so well done that it really draws you in.
My first exposure to Jeff VanderMeer was my purchase of City of Saints and Madmen in May of 2006. I was in my mid-20s and exploring more surreal literature; strange fantasies and bizarro being the two genres I was most greedily diving into. Upon reading that peculiar assortment of strange tales and explorations of the fantastic city of Ambergris, I could hardly wait to read more of his work. I’ve been a fan since that time 15 years ago, and VanderMeer has not disappointed me since. Hummingbird Salamander is a bit different from his other works, taking place neither in a feverish land of nebulous division between dreams and waking life nor in a future version of our world, transformed by otherworldly forces. Instead, this novel takes place in the here and now, though perhaps not quite the way you or I would recognize it in subtle ways. We are first introduced to a mildly paranoid digital security consultant who serves as our unreliable guide through the events that unfold as she begins her journey to unravel a mystery that remains at least somewhat unclear as you reach the final page. It should be said, that if you go into one of this author’s books expecting clarity and a tidy resolution, you’re probably in the wrong place. Elements of mystery and layered narratives are far from uncommon within VanderMeer’s work, but this particular story showcases the excellence of the suspense form when lovingly crafted by his mind and hands. Familiar themes from his work are on vivid display within this narrative, ecological concerns, curious uncertainties relating to identity and the self, and suggestions that what is real might not be quite so clear as we commonly understand it to be.
Tim Waggoner’s Your Turn To Suffer is one hell of an experience. The story that unfolds on these pages is reminiscent of Clive Barker at his horror and fantasy weaving best, while still feeling original and authentic as a Waggoner novel. Blending horrors both supernatural/unnatural and psychological, Your Turn To Suffer draws you in and refuses to let go. Seemingly out of nowhere, a random encounter on the street, followed a week later by an even more surreal and disturbing one in a grocery store sends Lori’s life spinning out of control. From an admittedly disorganized life as a physical therapist with a complicated living arrangement with her slob of an ex, her world becomes something unrecognizable as familiar places become unsafe and the people in her life are transformed into horrifying, monstrous strangers. Lori is forced to come to terms with her past as she struggles desperately to discover what she needs to confess to and atone for. This story reads like one of those nightmares you wake up from only to learn you’re still sleeping and experiencing a nightmare…except that it just continues like a Russian nesting doll of nightmares within nightmares. The narrative paints a distorted and dreamlike allegory, showcasing how guilt, even (or especially) when associated with long-forgotten–or suppressed–memories can weigh heavily on us. Once you’re on the Nightway and heading toward the Vermillion Tower, it’s already too late. The Cabal has you. You will suffer.