The Devil of Echo Lake by Douglas Wynne

The Devil of Echo Lake by Douglas Wynne
The Devil of Echo Lake by Douglas Wynne

I love rock n’ roll horror. It’s an under appreciated subgenre rich with untold stories. There isn’t enough quality musical fiction out there. Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box is an obvious exception. Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat fronted a rock band in The Queen of the Damned, as did the pre-emo bloodsucker of S.P. Somtow’s Vampire Junction. Stephen King, Peter Straub and Gary Braunbeck have all made excellent contributions to musical literature, and don’t forget Jeff Gelb’s Shock Rock anthologies.

Douglas Wynne loves rock ‘n roll horror too, and you can feel his passion for music drip off every page of The Devil of Echo Lake. The novel has a retro grunge feel (there are no cell phones and the musicians still record on analog tape) and uses all the rock ‘n roll archetypes — the wicked producer, the brooding rock star, and the overtly sexual groupie.

The story focuses on rookie engineer Jake, who finds himself caught between sinister producer Trevor Rail and tortured artist Billy Moon. Toss in a haunted converted church/recording studio, a couple of savage murders, and a showdown with the Great God Pan, and Jake’s got his hands full. It’s no wonder his love life is falling apart.

Fortunately, love conquers all — with assistance from a ghost and a satyr — and The Devil of Echo Lake ends in perfect harmony, with Jake learning a valuable lesson about the music business.

“You may find that records are kind of like hot dogs. You enjoy them a lot more before you know how they’re made.”

Douglas Wynne has a great sense of character and pacing. Jake is a sympathetic hero, and Billy and Trevor (even grizzled engineer Eddie) are larger-than-life figures that avoid becoming stereotypes. The Devil of Echo Lake hums along nicely, building a nice rhythm of action sequences and suspenseful passages. Wynne’s got style — it’s no surprise The Devil of Echo Lake was named JournalStone Publishing’s First Place Horror Fiction for 2012. The honor is well earned, and I look forward to more musical explorations from Mr. Wynne.

(Unabashed Plug: My own contribution to musical fiction is a novel called Hangman’s Jam. H.P. Lovecraft meets Motley Crue!)

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The Bell Witch by John F.D. Taff

Cover coming soon
The Bell Witch by John F.D. Taff

[Bob’s Note: The Bell Witch by John F.D. Taff will be released by Books of the Dead Press in July 2013.]

John F.D. Taff takes us to Adams, Tennessee circa 1820 to tell the all-American ghost story of The Bell Witch. Taff extracts elements of real Southern folklore to build the structure of his story, but populates it with compelling fictional characters.

The Bell family has skeletons rattling in the closet, and a dark secret has given birth to a vengeful supernatural entity — The Bell Witch.

The Witch exists almost entirely as a disembodied voice who harasses the members of the Bell family like an overbearing mother-in-law. She’s “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave,” and before long the Bells become bored, annoyed, and impatient with the intrusive Witch.

But her purpose becomes more apparent — and more sinister —  when The Witch targets certain members of the Bell clan for a rough brand of supernatural bullying. This vengeful, diarrhea-mouthed spirit won’t rest until a terrible truth is revealed, and a deadly debt is paid.

The Bell Witch is an atmospheric Southern Gothic—an all-American ghost story—born of regional folklore, and Taff’s fertile imagination. The Witch is a memorable haunt, a spook with a conscience and a purpose, a ghost that gets drunk, horny, and lonely,  but never waivers in her mission of vengeance.

BOB’S BOTTOM LINE: The Bell Witch will haunt you long after you finish reading this well-crafted, all-America ghost story.

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20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts is good. Very good. Like, Books of Blood good. Like, Night Shift, and Skeleton Crew good.

Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces.

“Best New Horror” asks the question, who’s weirder: horror writers, horror readers, or the horror editors who bring the two together? Hill employs nice story-within-a-story framing techniques is this modern take on the classic EC-style horror tale.

“20th Century Ghosts” is the only traditional ghost story in this collection. It’s an effective ode to old movie houses and the people who love — and haunt — them.

“Better Than Home” and “Voluntary Committal” both deal with living with — and loving — people with mental disabilities. Hill demonstrates the challenges and mysteries of such relationships beautifully in this passage from “Voluntary Committal.”

“At times, my brother made me think of one of those tapered, horned conch shells, with a glossy pink interior curving away and out of sight into some tightly wound inner mystery.”

Great writers make it look easy, and Hill is no exception. Saying he has “a way with words,” is a massive understatement. Saying, “Hill has his way with words” is more accurate. He bends them to his will, and makes them do his bidding in tales like “The Cape” and “Last Breath.” These tales flow so naturally, it’s easy to overlook the skill required to create them.

The best writing crafts words to convey great ideas. This is demonstrated in “Pop Art,” another tale about loving a disabled person. In this case, the affliction is, well … inflatibility.

The narrator’s childhood friend is an blow-up boy named Art. (“Pop Art” … because he’s, like, a balloon. Get it?) It’s an absurd joke, (see SpongeBob SquarePants’ “Bubble Buddy” episode for another brilliant take on the same concept) except Hill renders it so poignantly, it becomes a masterful mediation on life, death, and life after death.

Art dreams of being an astronaut, traveling to worlds beyond this one, then realizes everyone gets the chance to live this dream with death’s ultimate release.

“You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”

Art possesses a Zen-like serenity that eludes the narrator, a boy who is all too familiar with the world’s harsh cruelties. When Art tells him an angry dog named “Happy” would be more pleasant if it wasn’t penned up, the narrator disagrees.

“It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy’s ilk — I am thinking here of canines and men both — more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.”

Hill hits it on the head, and out of the park with this description of life in a world of cruel, artless dunderheads.

If pressed to find a flaw in 20th Century Ghosts, my only critique would be too many of the stories use a child protagonist, which is a kind of writer’s crutch. Casting a kid as a hero can be a cheap literary trick because:

  • It allows you to dumb down your story, seeing things through “the eyes if a child.”
  • It gives your characters a reason to do stupid things, because, “they’re just kids!”
  • It hijacks the reader’s own childhood memories, imbuing the kid characters with an intimacy and nostalgia the writer didn’t earn.

Admittedly, this is more of a personal writing peeve than a criticism. Hill writes amazing stories. His ideas are fresh, and his characters are honest, engaging, and human no matter what their age.

Maybe it’s uncool to say, but Joe Hill has big shoes to fill — his father is Stephen King, after all. One of the reasons he writes under the name Joe Hill is because doesn’t want his work compared to his Dad’s, and to dispel any belief he was given a publishing contract because of his family heritage.

Joe Hill needn’t worry. He might be following in his old man’s footsteps, but he’s wearing snowshoes, and leaving pretty impressive tracks of his own.

The Two Sams by Glen Hirshberg

The Two Sams : Ghost Stories by Glen Hirshberg
$2.99 Ebook, Cemetery Dance Publications.

You won’t find any vampires, werewolves or other traditional monsters in Hirshberg’s horror fiction. You’ll barely even find horror in The Two Sams. What you will find are five stories laden with human sorrow and a palpable atmosphere of dread. These stories are not so much written as they are crafted. You can practically see Hirshberg’s professorial, academic fingerprints on every carefully sculpted line of text. The five stories collected in The Two Sams quietly wrap you in a cloak of uneasiness. “Struwwelpeter” examines the seeds of murder and the tension of father/son relationships. “Shipwreck Beach” follows two cousins; one of whom is suicidal, the other intent on saving him…oh, and along they way they may or may not release a wailing ghost from the hold of an old shipwreck. “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” is an engaging tale that should be required Halloween reading for all horror fiction fans. “Dancing Men” weaves the threads of The Holocaust, the plight of American Indians, and the unbreakable bonds of family into one bizarre tapestry. The best story in this collection is the title piece, about a man confronting the ghosts of his miscarried children. This tale sticks to you like glue, and leaves you feeling as haunted as its narrator. Hirshberg’s quiet tales of terror leave you feeling claustrophobic and chilled to the bone. Is anything more frightening than family?