Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel is an excellent tale of a 1950s army band recruited to track down a mysterious musical weapon (and its equally mysterious owner) in the South African desert. The title could refer to vinyl records or the spin of reel-to-reel recording decks. It might refer to the tires of an army jeep stuck in the sand, or the ever-turning wheel of history. Or it could refer to life itself, the way we circle back, again and again, to the things that hurt and haunt us. Malerman leaves it open, and Black Mad Wheel is all the better for the ambiguity.
Protagonist Phillip Tonka should have listened to his mother when the army requested his band, The Danes, travel to South Africa to investigate a strange and potentially dangerous sound.
“Mystery,” she says, “is bad enough on its own. But mystery with the army?” She shakes her head. “Means they’re hiding something.”
Indeed, Black Mad Wheel is packed with twists, turns, betrayals, and a few moments of hold-your-breath suspense. This novel is not only set in the 1950s, it has a post-war mood that reverberates throughout the story, including a budding romance between Phillip and his nurse, Ellen.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I suppose we’re all a bit wounded.”
They stare at one another, connected by the hospital and more.
Perhaps the most interesting twist Malerman presents is that the sound is not a weapon, but the opposite, something capable of stopping the endless cycle of war.
While the ending hits a few sour notes, this book is 95% awesome. Malerman strikes a memorable chord in the pantheon of musical fiction with Black Mad Wheel.
Gwendolyn Kiste has a wonderful way with words. In her hands they are beautiful and savage, comforting and terrifying, heart-wrenching and healing.
And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe contains some true gems, tales thick with atmosphere and murky mood. “Evening settles softly on the orchard like black tar dripping from the sky” and later, “the air tastes of nicotine and abandoned dreams.”
These stories are about dysfunctional families, twisted sisters, and haunted mothers and fathers. “The Clawfoot Requiem” is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” while “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” reads like a nightmarish fairy tale about forgotten princesses.
“My father counts the money each night, pacing circles like a vulture that dines on the carrion of frail dreams.”
“Little girls don’t earn the right to question the wisdom of men. We can smile and blush and nod our heads, but we can’t tell them no.”
“Girls are always expected to carry an impossible burden in life, like a thousand bushels of apples strapped upon a single back.”
Stories like “The Man in the Ambry”, and “Ten Things To Know About The Ten Questions” showcase Kiste’s powerful prose and unique take on familiar horror tropes, while the title tale, about an old film star brought to life by a fan’s love, is fueled by poetry and romance.
“The way you hold me,” you said, your gaze bright as wildfire, “it’s like I’m falling, but you’ve already caught me.”
And the final line:
“And in the final frame, as the universe fades to black, you’ll save each other.”
Indeed, if only we could all save each other. And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe is a brilliant, lyrical, and moving collection of tales.
K.R. Griffiths isn’t blazing any new ground in Panic, the first of his six-volume Wildfire Chronicles series. We’ve seen the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse before in Dawn of the Dead, The Walking Dead, and Fear The Walking Dead, and all of the familiar horror tropes are employed in Panic (though the Infected of Panic resemble the regular-folks-turned-crazed-killers of Stephen King’s Cell, or Richard Laymon’s One Rainy Night rather than Romero or Kirkman’s shambling ghouls.)
While Griffiths’s tale doesn’t bristle with originality, it is well told, and once he establishes the heroes —a cop, a young girl, and her Of Mice And Men-ish, special needs brother — and the villains —a mad scientist/survivalist (nice trope combo, K.R.!), a sister secret government agency, and an exponentially-growing hoard of killer cannibals — the story chugs along at a good pace. Panic is a page-turner, and Griffiths plots at an all-out sprint as the novel reached its half-closure/half-cliffhanger ending.
Sure there are a couple of clunky mid-chapter POV changes, and a few things don’t entirely add up. One of the first people infected is a priest who beheads his “wife.” Are priests allowed to marry in rural SouthWales? That’s pretty progressive. And why do the Infected tear out their eyes (other than some latent Oedipal complex)? Griffiths creates modern “fast zombies” but then lessens their threat by having the creatures blind themselves. Sure, the Panic people are pretty spry compared to a Romero zombie, but they can’t see for shit — and it’s their own damn fault!
It’s an odd choice in an otherwise by-the-numbers beginning-of-the-end tale. Maybe Griffiths will address it in the other books in the Wildfire Chronicles series. (Zombies with bionic eyes!) Whatever Griffiths has in mind you can be assured it will be fun, fast-paced, and wholly familiar.
The complete guide to writing and publishing a book by Kyle Burbank
There are a million different do-it-yourself guides to publishing an e-book, and Kyle Burbank’s Write, Print, Publish, Promote is as good as any at introducing authors to the basics of digital publishing.
Burbank published a successful niche book —The E-Ticket Life, about his adventures at Disney theme parks— and Write, Print, Publish, Promote has more of a nonfiction slant than some of the other DIY publishing guides out there. Still, the principles Burbank outlines apply to fiction and nonfiction ooksalike.
Some of the advice is laughably broad stroke, like “learn Photoshop,“ and “learn Adobe Indesign.“ Good advice, akin to “master chess,“ or “learn how to drive a forklift.“ Great skills to have, though some take a lifetime to grasp.
Burbank excels at giving advice on selling print copies of your book at conventions and various distribution models for your work including audiobooks. There’s good advice here at a practical price. In a world of how-to guides, Write, Print, Publish, Promote, The complete guide to writing and publishing a book by Kyle Burbank sticks out for its honesty and feel-good approach to digital publishing.
Kathy Ryan has problems. Her brother is a psychopath who tried to kill her when they were young, and now a band of cultists have unleashed an otherworldly invasion on the otherwise quiet town of Colby, Connecticut. Kathy is also emotionally drained from her job battling supernatural monsters. Guarding the inter-dimensional gateway against ancient intruders is difficult work, described in Mary SanGiovanni‘s Chills as:
“It was science and science fiction and magic and religion and physics and mathematics all sort of rolled into one.”
“This here is the language of creation and destruction itself, the language that echoes the sound of the Convergence, the substance between dimensions and the space between the stars.”
It is no wonder that Kathy drinks. Heavily.
Mary SanGiovanni creates an otherworldly winter wonderland in Chills. Described as “H.P. Lovecraft meets True Detective,” Chills reads more like a road episode of the X-Files, if Fox and Mulder or combined into one powerful female protagonist.
Kathy has help on her quest to shut the inter-dimensional doorway and keep the world-eating Old Gods out. Teagan not only provides a romantic foil for Kathy, he also helps her solve a linguistics problem (who knew Old Gods spoke Gaelic? Top o’ the mornin’, Cthulu!)
Detective Jack Glazier loses a loved one, but saves the day, surviving a face-to-tentacle brush with the Old Gods. SanGiovanni makes magnificent monsters, from her Blue People, to her fish-headed assassins, to the messy tentacle-monsters at the novel’s conclusion. But her finest achievement is the way she transforms the weather itself into a fully flesh-out character in Chills. The snow is alive, spawning screaming creatures who “sound not much different in timbre from the waling gust of wind.” Old Man Winter is a mean bully.
“The creatures, though, had raised an incredible din. It sounded to Jack like wind and thunder, and it was growing louder.”
The backbone of this novel is Kathy’s relationship with her damaged brother, Toby. SanGiovanni does an excellent job describing Toby’s detachment:
“Everything is happening around you and you’re in the center of it, but you’re not real, not really there. You’re just . . . superimposed on the world.”
And the suffering of individuals with mental disorders:
“It was unsettling to watch anyone die slowly of intellectual malnutrition in the deserted wasteland of a broken mind…”
SanGiovanni is at her best when she’s world-building (or, other-world building, as the case my be). Her mythos borrows Lovecraft’s structure, but expands upon it in delightful and strangely logical ways (something Lovecraft himself often failed to achieve). SanGiovanni’s prose is lyrical — almost poetic —her characters are believably flawed human beings, and her mastery of tone and atmosphere makes Chills a chilling, edge-of-your-seat read.
Responsibility. Withdrawal symptoms. Owning up to their past mistakes.
One of the recovering addicts in Matt Hayward’s creep-fest What Do Monsters Fear? sums up the plot in a few well-chosen words:
“Three strung-out fucks are gonna stop an ancient evil god?”
Hell, yeah, they are! Because the ancient evil god—a body-snatching baddie called Phobos—has underestimated the drive and determination of men with nothing left to lose.
There’s a claustrophobic quality to this novel comparable to the trapped arctic explorers in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tensions ratchet up by as Phobos picks off victims and terrifies those that remain. Like Freddy Krueger or Pennywise, Phobos knows what scares you, and takes perverse pleasure in torturing victims with their own deepest fears and phobias.
Hayward’s writing engages the senses and propels the story forward, like when he introduces the shifty doctor:
“A waft of aftershave drifted from him, tainting the honest smell of raw wood.”
Or describes the death of supernatural beings:
“Unlike in the movies when a supernatural entity died, the cat didn’t dissipate into nothingness with a sizzle. Instead, it burned and burned, the smell of charred flesh and singed hair filling the space. Dark smoke packed the room.”
Hayward employs the same multi-sensory technique even when the scenes get visceral:
“Shelly’s body slopped from the table and splashed to the floor.”
Poor liquified Shelly makes another appearance later on:
“He stepped in Shelly Matthews. The liquefied blob of flesh quivered like a fried egg beneath his heel. One eye blinked within the mess and stared back at him.”
Yuck! Sucks to be Shelly! Beyond the blood and monsters, What Do Monsters Fear? tackles the issue of addicts in recovery, and the way they view themselves as they attempt to turn their lives around.
“Peter hated to admit it, but for the briefest moment, he related to the monster.”
But men and monsters alike get second chances. Seeing elderly drunk Henry’s redemption is perhaps the novel’s most triumphant moment.
“I was useful for once in my miserable piece of shit life… My actions meant something.”
That’s the kind of validation we all seek, both addict and non-addict, man and monster alike.
Hayward has a great sense of pacing and a cinematic writing style that makes What Do Monsters Fear? a fast, fun read! He leaves the door open for potential sequels, and implies that the worst kind of monsters don’t live in alternate, cosmic dimensions but inside the hearts of men.
The lead story, “God Is In The Radio,” owes much to H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music Of Eric Zahn,” only it’s more coherent and satisfying than the original. An aging rock star finds an inter-dimensional doorway hidden inside the notes of his latest tune.
Those little off notes in a Blues lick. The ones that make you think of sex and sin… Those blue notes and the tritone are where the secrets lie.
Music and melody drips from every page of Brain Dead Blues, and Hayward sets a colorful scene will a handful of well-chosen words.
The place smelled of sawdust and stale beer, but to him, it smelled like the raw stench of live music.
The intersection of melody and monsters is where Hayward shines brightest.
Something about the melody got under his skin, wriggled about like a maggot, infecting him. He vomited three times.
At times, Hayward uses his tales to portray the sad path modern music has taken.
Honestly, no one gives a shit! We’ve devalued music so damn much that people just expect you to bleed for free.
The real artists, the real musicians, they’re left working in coffee shops and garages across the globe for next to nothing…
A love of Lovecraft is evident in Haywards prose, from panicked, unreliable narrators, to creepy, cosmic creatures.
Other worlds. Worlds that would make you lose your mind even if you only gave them a glance.
Their faces did look eerily similar to an angler fish, lower lip eating the upper.
Hayward’s other literary strength is weaving fairy tales, folklore, and traditional horror tropes into something wholly original. “The Faery Tree” draws inspiration from “The Monkey’s Paw” while turning the “Tinkerbelle”-notion of fairies on its head. “Cordyceps” turns people into exploding seed spores, while “Critter” blends the best parts of ET and When Animals Attack! Even something as innocuous as a will-o’-the-wisp becomes a unearthly nightmare in Hayward’s hands (“An Angel And A Reaper”).
There are vampire and werewolf stories in Brain Dead Blues, but neither are what you’d expect. The vampire tale—“You Get What You Pay For”—is more of a rumination on eternal life and endless loss, while tipping its hat to the “creepy curio shop” trope. The werewolves in “King Of The Gypsies” belong to a kind of monstrous Fight Clubthat holds love and family sacred.
As an accomplished musician, there is a palpable rhythm and pacing to Brain Dead Blues. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it…until one of Hayward’s strange creations pops up and scares the shit out of you.
Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts is a beautiful novel, a post-modern tale of demonic possession that leaves you questioning where truth lies in our surreal/unreal world.
Publisher William Morrow sums up A Head Full Of Ghosts:
The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.
To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
Like a brilliant gem, A Head Full Of Ghosts looks different from different angles. Overall, it’s a story about the bonds of sisterhood. It’s also an indictment of our reality TV culture and the toll it takes on reality itself. Viewed from another angle, it’s a straight-up tale of demonic possession packed with genuinely scary moments, suspenseful scenes, and plot twists that leave the reader satisfied—and a bit haunted—after reading.
That’s how good horror stories work and Tremblay has crafted a great one. He freely pulls from pop culture influences—from Richard Scarry books to Lovecraft’s Elder Gods mythos—and deftly weaves them into a plausible framework for his story.
At one point Tremblay describes the older sister’s disheveled appearance:
Her black hair was a dead octopus leaking and sliding off her scalp.
Conjuring images of both Lovecraftian monsters and the pale she-demons that stalk modern Japanese horror, like The Ring.
What kind of demon is at work here? Tremblay implies it’s the vengeful ghost of the Internet itself when Majorie reports:
I was born with all of the universe’s information hidden in the infinite folds and wrinkles of my gray matter, and the information itself decides when it wants to come out and be known.
At times Tremblay implicates the readers as voyeuristic sadists, as we watch “the terrible and systematic torture of a mentally ill teenage girl under the guise of entertainment.” Then he flips the script so you feel like you’re no more than a morsel of food slipping into a monstrous gullet.
“I could eat the world. Merry, pass the sauce, please,” Majorie said, and winked at me.
All the characters are fully realized and accessible. Your heart breaks for the Barrett family as outside forces—perhaps demonic, perhaps dogmatic— tear their lives apart.
I made a social blunder recently when I disparaged Harry Potter during a family vacation.
I started reading the Harry Potter series this summer, along with my wife and our 11-year-old daughter. There are lots of Harry Potter fans in our extended family. I have several nieces and nephews that grew up with author J.K. Rowling’s books and movies. My niece recently visited to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida to celebrate her graduation … from college!
These were hardcore fans. I should have known better when they asked what I thought of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
“It’s kind of childish,” I said. “Heavy handed. Does the bad kid at school need to be named Draco Malfoy, and his thug friends Crabbe and Goyle? Is Goyle’s first name Gar? I understand these characters are snakes in the grass, but do they need to live in Slytherin House, too?”
Everyone looked at me slack-jawed, like I’d blasted a wet shart right there in front of the group. Really, Uncle Rob? Are you that guy, the one who finds fault with things that everybody else likes?
Well, yeah, I’m that guy. I’m a book reviewer, a “literary critic.” (www.bobsbookblog.com). I’m supposed to kick the tires and pick at the seams of novels and short stories, check the quality of their build, see how they function, and let people know if they deliver the literary goods.
I tried to clarify my Harry Potter stance with my wife later on.
“There’s a simple beauty to J.K. Rowling’s work, the way some of the best songs are built around three chords. It’s catchy, gets your heart pumping, and sweeps you away. That’s the magic of Harry Potter. It’s like a great pop song you can’t stop humming,” I explained.
“But I didn’t appreciate Rowling’s running gag with the character names. It was silly and took me out of the story,” I said. “There’s no reason to name your characters Billy Badguy, Sally Sidekick, or Lucy Loveinterest.”
“What if you had a character named Bob Buzzkill?” my wife asked. “Or Peter Pretentious. Maybe Biggie Blackcloud. He’d be a mopey Native American who makes it rain on everybody’s parade.”
“Funny, but that’s not me,” I said. “I’m a journalist! I dissect the subject to get to the truth! I’d be Chris Critic! Geraldo Reviewer!”
“Jerky McJealous,” my wife countered. “Write your own bestselling young adult series if you don’t like Harry Potter.”
Clearly this is not an argument I’m meant to win. Nor do I want to.
Because I like Harry Potter! I’m new to Rowling’s Wizarding World, but already I can see it’s filled with memorable adventures and unforgettable characters. I don’t know if it’s a modern literary classic, but it’s certainly well crafted and delightfully designed. Harry Potter is built with love and built to last.
So what if I have quibbles with Rowling’s character names? It’s certainly not the first thing I should mention when people ask how I like the Harry Potter series. But I have poor social skills, and I’m…I’m…
Igor Ignorant. Arnie Awkward. Jack Ass. Dullard Scott.
Protagonist Ignatius C. Reilly is a bloated buffoon, a man-baby who lives with his mother, has a troubled digestive valve that causes him to burp and fart with great frequency, and possesses one of the most “unique” worldviews you’re likely to find.
Ignatius is loaf completely at ease with his loafishness:
“I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
Ignatius is like a giant child when he considers his career options and argues with his mother:
I suspect that something like a newspaper route would be rather agreeable.
“I dare you to come out in that shredded nightgown and get me!” Ignatius answered defiantly and stuck out his massive pink tongue.
Above all, A Confederacy of Dunces is funny. Laugh out loud is an overused phrase, but COD will make you LOL for realz, yo. The situations are so absurd, the characters so odd, and the dialogue veers between biting satire punctuated by unexpected blasts of pee-your-pants profanity.
“Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet!” Ignatius screamed savagely. Miss Trixie shuffled away.
No mater what the problem, Ignatius always finds a way to blame others.
“Employers sense in me a denial of their values.” He rolled over onto his back. “They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe.
You must realize the fear and hatred which my weltanschauung instills in people.
He twisted his face into a mask of suffering. There was no use fighting Fortuna until the cycle was over. “You realize, of course, that this is all your fault.
“You’re full of bullshit.”
“I? The incident is sociologically valid. The blame rests upon our society.”
Sometimes COD goes for screwball comedy and slapstick. Taken as a whole, COD is the mother of all farces.
When he’s not avoiding work or fighting with his mother, Ignatius plots against Myrna, a radical student he once attended classes with. The romantic ending of COD is anticipated but still manages to be unexpectedly satisfying.
Dr. Talc idly wondered if they (Iggy and Myrna) had married each other. Each certainly deserved the other.
Through Myrna’s letters we see she has true insight into Ignatius’ personality:
This “automobile accident” is a new crutch to help you make excuses for your meaningless, impotent existence.
A good, explosive orgasm would cleanse your being and bring you out of the shadows.
Great Oedipus bonds are encircling your brain and destroying you
Ignatius, a very bad crack-up is on the way. You must do something. Even volunteer work at a hospital would snap you out of your apathy,
The valve closes because it thinks it is living in a dead organism. Open your heart, Ignatius, and you will open your valve.
Behind his absurdity, Ignatius is sad and lonely, a sorrow that stems from his isolationism:
We both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Myrna was, you see, terribly engaged in her society; I, on the other hand, older and wiser, was terribly dis-engaged.
I really have had little to do with them, for I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.
I don’t dance. I never dance. I have never danced in my life.
COD is also a love letter to Toole’s native New Orleans:
Patrolman Mancuso inhaled the moldy scent of the oaks and thought, in a romantic aside, that St. Charles Avenue must be the loveliest place in the world.
New Orleans is, on the other hand, a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive. At least its climate is mild.
The balconies of the old buildings hung over my head like dark branches in an allegorical forest of evil.
I won’t get into the tragic personal history of author John Kenndy Toole. The story behind his career and the publication of COD is itself an impossible tale of heartbreaking genius. But the toxic mother-son relationship at the heart of this novel certainly is rife with autobiographical elements.
Ms. Reilly laments Ignatius’ weak work ethic.
“My heart’s broke.”
“Ain’t he writing something?”
“Some foolishness nobody never gonna feel like reading.”
Fortunately, the real-life Thelma Toole felt differently about her son’s work.