Brain Dead Blues by Matt Hayward

Irish author/musician Matt Hayward puts his impressive writing chops on display in his short story collection, Brain Dead Blues.

The lead story, “God Is In The Radio,” owes much to H.P. Lovecraft’sThe 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 Club that 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. 

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

The magic of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling lies in its combination of simplicity and familiarity. Like a three-chord pop song, Harry Potter sticks in your head, causing pleasant sensations as it bounces around your brain.

We know this story; an unlikely hero with a regal destiny is sent on an epic quest. We know these characters, too, from source material as diverse as the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, Greek mythology, and Disney movies.

The star of the show, of course, is Harry Potter himself, a downtrodden elementary school student who must contend with the sudden responsibility of fulfilling a magical destiny. The well-known coming-of-age tale of finding (and re-inventing) yourself in a new school gives Harry Potter’s high fantasy a connection to real-world grade school drama, which is what makes this book so appealing to readers of all ages.

Harry embarks upon a hero’s quest to find the elusive Sorcerer’s Stone.

The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.

Harry Potter has stock villains (the real ones, and the ones you only think are bad) and stock friends. Even the guard dog feels like a hybrid of the Minotaur and Cerebrus. Bumbling-but-lovable sidekick, Hagrid, strikes me as part Luca Brasi from The Godfather, and part Bigfoot from The Howard Stern Show.

“Now, don’t ask me anymore,” said Hagrid gruffly. “That’s top secret, that is.”

There’s the wise and patient old teacher, Dumbledore, who walks a trail blazed by Gandolf and Yoda, and gets the lion’s share of the book’s most meaningful quotes:

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.

To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

This last one is interesting, since Rowling plays an annoying name game with the characters in Harry Potter. The school bully is named Draco Malfoy and his thug friends are Crabbe and Goyle. These characters are snakes in the grass and they live in Slytherin House. The school nerd is Neville Longbottom. A wicked teacher is named Severus Snape. Maybe younger readers find these over-the-top character names endearing, but they took me out of the story a bit every time I encountered them.

Naming quibbles aside, Rowling’s writing is sharp, lean, and constantly moving forward. This is the stuff that page-turners are made off. Keeping her younger readers in mind, Rowling sometimes goes straight for juvenile gross-out:

“Can you smell something?” Harry sniffed and a foul stench reached his nostrils, a mixture of old socks and the kind of public toilet no one seems to clean.

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue. “Urgh – troll boogers.” He wiped it on the troll’s trousers.

Other times, Harry Potter skirts the fringes of horror fiction (while conjuring the legend of Edward Mordake):

Harry would have screamed, but he couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.

And sometimes Harry Potter brushes against the madness of Alice in Wonderland.

A piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence — the book was screaming! Harry snapped it shut, but the shriek went on and on, one high, unbroken, earsplitting note.

Part of the fun of Harry Potter is the interactive games, wizarding spells, and puzzle solving that keeps the reader engaged the way an old Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen mystery might.

“Wingardium Leviosa!”

Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi.

Dumbledore serves up the novel’s main theme—undying love versus ancient evil—for young hero, Harry:

He (Voldemort) didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.

Isn’t this the wish of all living beings, to be loved by our mothers, and to be watched over by those who came before us? To be marked by a love so powerful and eternal it will protect and guide you through life?

It’s no wonder the Harry Potter franchise is so popular. It contains characters and situations we can all relate too (even if they’re cloaked in the fantastic) while quietly fulfilling humanity’s deepest wish.

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The Book of Paul by Richard Long

The Book of Paul by Richard Long
The Book of Paul by Richard Long

 I didn’t know what to expect when I dove into Richard Long’s debut novel, The Book of Paul, other than Stephen King endorsed it and the novel was billed as “ a paranormal thriller.” Based on the cover, I figured The Book of Paul was a mythology-based tale of pirates for young adult readers. The skeleton keys on the cover look like a skull and crossbones on ancient parchment paper, you know?

But by Chapter Four a tattooed Goth girl with labia piercings is blowing a big-dicked muscle-head, so I had to toss my assumptions out the window. This wasn’t young adult fiction.

I’m sure this happens a lot with The Book of Paul. It’s a wild genre-bending ride through mythology, magic, and white-knuckled action adventure.

According to author Richard Long:

The Book of Paul is the first of seven volumes in a sweeping mythological narrative tracing the mystical connections between Hermes Trismegistus in ancient Egypt, Sophia, the female counterpart of Christ, and the Celtic druids of Clan Kelly.

Long’s blend of mythology and realism is stylistically similar to Neil Gaiman‘s, but Long’s prose is leaner and meaner with more of a noir feel, for example:

The tiny .22-caliber bullet was ricocheting inside her skull like a pinball, lighting up old memories of love and cruelty as it whipped the spidery gray filaments of her brain into a six-egg omelet.

Sometimes the action slips into comic book-like mayhem.

The Striker punched him in the throat. “Aaack!” Paul gacked, hitting the floor with a thunderous boom!

The Book of Paul is fun, fun, fun, and Paul is one of the most delightfully wicked villains in modern memory. Evil, funny, and weirdly human (particularly strange for an immortal) Paul delivers some of the novel’s best lines and most powerful insights, like:

Sometimes I think evil is just loneliness with nowhere else to go.

Lonely or not, Paul is a man/demi-god who keeps his eye on the prize, in this case, the fulfillment of a centuries old prophecy.

Characters are the backbone of any good story, and Long has created an unforgettable cast in The Book of Paul. Brainwashed muscleman Martin, Goth princess Rose, in-and-out of the narrative narrator William, confused accomplice Michael Bean and a gaggle of tattooed, body-modified counter-culture superfreaks.

Paul’s backstory and the history of his clan is complex, but Long keeps it interesting with meaty philosophical asides:

“It’s no mystery why we hide from death. We hide because we fear it. The greatest mystery of life is death. What force engineered this necessity? What is this thing we call ‘food’? We eat life, William. We eat life! And we eat it every single day!”

The Book of Paul is a winning genre mashup. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino directed Highlander and you’ll have an idea of what Long has created. As much as I dislike serial novels, I’m looking  forward to the continuing adventures of Clan Kelly. As The Man himself notes:

“Stories never end,” Paul grunted, “at least not the ones I tell.” 

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