Black Mad Wheel By Josh Malerman

Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman

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.

The Croning by Laird Barron

The Croning by Laird Barron
The Croning by Laird Barron

Something amazing happens in Laird Barron’s The Croning.

The hero saves the day simply by forgetting to act. He agrees to let his mind rot away (perhaps the most terrifying fate of all) while his witchy woman makes off with their newborn grandchild.

That’s the happiest ending possible in this twisted tale that combines the legend of Rumplestilskin, Ira Levin’s secret satanic societies, and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror mythos.

Laird Barron is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. His stuff is way out there, there’s a palpable sense of the strange in his prose, and he uses cools words like sybarites and decorticate.

Protagonist Don Miller is the last to learn he’s a pawn in an ancient game. His wife is a witch hell-bent on double-crossing a race of demons that long to suck humanity dry and wipe the Earth clean.

Every smart husband knows when to back off, and Miller has learned not to pry into his wife’s affairs or ask too many questions.

She’d given him a long, wintry look, the coldest he’d ever received prior or since. Then she said, Leave a girl her secrets, Don.

Miller willfully turns a blind eye, and maybe that’s the secret to their successful marriage. That, and the long absences Don and Michelle take from one another. A nosey federal agent points out what Miller refuses to see about himself:

I’m guessing you’re exactly the rube she needs to maintain her cover as a cute little lady scientist. Who’d suspect her of anything with Gomer Pyle hanging around?

The Ancient Evil at work here is called Old Leech, and it’s straight outta Stoker, yo.

This was a colossal worm that had swallowed whole villages, cities… A leech of nightmare proportions, a constellation rendered against granite, and it had shat the populations of entire worlds in its slithering wake through the night skies.

There is a lot of weird stuff going on here. Hollow Earth Theory. Toothy, limbless creatures that live inside ancient trees. Sacrificial dolmens, like Stonehenge, in the middle of the Washington State. Vortexes to other dimensions.

The conspiracy is everywhere, as Don learns, and his own daughter is not immune. Don’s turncoat boss gives a glimpse into the vastness of the enemy:

“They worship a deity that ate the fucking dinosaurs, several species of advanced hominids and the Mayans. Opened a gate and slurped them through a funnel.”

And as Old Leech’s human servant puts it:

We venerate the Great Dark, the things that dwell there… Our cult is monolithic with tentacles in every human enterprise throughout history, into prehistory.”

“Ah, like Amway,” Don notes.

Barron’s language is equal parts noir and poetry.

You are a mosquito trapped in the sap of a sundew.

And later:

You’re a flea on the belly of a mastodon.

Barron’s writing makes you feel small and frightened, which is all you can ask from good horror fiction.

The Croning can trace its literary roots back to Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife. But Leiber’s “classic” novel is dated and quaint (and more than a little paranoid) by today’s standards. The Croning is a more wholly realized tale that digs deeper into the fertile soil of myth and fairy-tale, and employs more believable characters to deliver its message.

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Our Great Abbess by C.L. Holmes

Our Great Abbess by C.L. Holmes
Our Great Abbess by C.L. Holmes

In the interest of full disclosure, I was fortunate to read an early draft of C.L. Holmes’s Our Great Abbess, and I enjoyed it so much, I asked if I could publish it. Read more about Abbess below, or go get it here.

Our Great Abbess blends historical fiction and religious horror to tell a compelling tale of cloistered nuns in a secluded mountain abbey, under siege by starvation, disease, marauders, and internal sabotage.

The young nuns of St. Agnes Convent face starvation, and there is no money in the treasury because the former prioress went mad and gave it all away. (Mad Reverend Mother Oxtierna has been banished to the abbey’s dungeon.) The Governing Mothers reach out to Baron Jack for help, but he denies them. A plague has wiped out much of the population of Europe, and war with a neighboring kingdom is imminent. The Baron can’t spare any resources for the Sisters unless he gets something in return: he wants one of the young nuns to serve as a sex slave for his army.

Shocked and disgusted the Mothers reject the Baron’s offer. But things go from bad to worse. The villagers think the woods surrounding the abbey are haunted by vengeful spirits and refuse to help. Friars from a brother are friendly, but also destitute. Scouting parties sent out for help have never returned.

Prioress-by-default Tabitha musters the courage to accept the Baron’s offer. She will sacrifice herself to the Baron’s savages so that the rest of the nuns can survive. But the Baron’s offer has changed. Now he wants all the nuns in the Abby as sex slaves, though Tabitha can spare one girl.

Our Great Abbess traverses some dark waters and doesn’t pull punches. Nightly rapes by masked marauders are just the beginning of the horrors the sisters of St. Agnes Convent must endure. But the novel ultimately empowers women rather than objectifies them.

Abbess is a book filled with powerful women who rise up no matter how desperate the situation or unrightous the indignity. Tabitha kicks ass, outwitting her male suppressors to keep the Abbey going at all cost.

“As Tabitha saw it, the convent was a transition point between the world and heaven.”

Tabitha is joined by a cast of equally strong and memorable women. Wicked and mad Oxtierna. The naïve but not-so-innocent Marta. Suspicious and conniving Isadore. Our Great Abbess is a big, sprawling novel, but the pacing is strong throughout, buoyed by a driving narrative, interesting sub-plots, and beautiful language.

The male supporting cast gets some of the books best lines, like these from a maudlin Baron Jack:

“It is inevitable. Life is just our fattening ourselves for the dirt maw, standing precariously on its lip, then it’s in we go.”

And Tabitha’s faithful servant Clovis contemplates the nature of suffering and God’s plan for each of us.

“There are no ‘supposed to be’s.’ God gives us what we are, and changes his mind on occasion, and we’re left to deal with the reality of it.”

Our Great Abbess reads as if John Jakes penned a round robin novel with George R.R. Martin, Clive Barker and Umberto Eco. The novel bristles with historical intrigue, authentic dialogue, genuine suspense and no-holds-barred horrors.

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The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron

Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron
Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron

Laird Barron writes weird.

Barron is a good writer, but the stories contained in his collection, The Imago Sequence  and Other Stories, are sometimes hard to figure. You’ll need a dictionary, good map skills, and a working knowledge of mythology, world religions, philosophy, horror fiction, and crime pulps to make heads or tails of these tales.

Don’t get me wrong; just because Barron’s style is strange doesn’t mean his fiction isn’t enjoyable. The stories in The Imago Sequence are rich with interesting characters and concepts, and practically drip with atmosphere.

Barron is a skilled writer and you can see his toil on every page. He blends Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft, in ways both good and bad. Tough guys stumble through the underworld of crime and the Old West against a backdrop of ancient horrors, cosmic interference, and unreliable narrators. At its best, Barron’s gritty prose conjures Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, gut-punching like a trench-coated henchman in an old black-and-white film. Check out these savory one-liners:

“Somebody slapped a bottle of whiskey in my hand and lost the cork…I tumbled off the wagon and got crushed under its wheels.”

“If the best revenge is living well, second best has to be watching your enemy shrivel like a worm on the end of a hook.”

“Underdog and Popeye couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag until they’d had their fix.”

“Karma, brothers and sisters, has a mouth as big as the world.”

Occasionally Barron’s work is undone by his word choice. Just because you’ve got a big vocabulary is no reason to use phrases like, “great chthonian depths,” “uxoricidal brute,” or “compensation for your temerity.”

The title story is the best in the collection. “The Imago Sequence” follows the pursuit of an ultra-rare trio of photographs that drive viewers insane and/or reveal the secrets of existence, perhaps even the very face of God Hisownself. The crime noir vibe builds to a climax that’s equal parts Thomas Harris’s Hannibal and John Carpenter’s The Thing, imbued with meaty philosophical musings:

“Enlightenment isn’t necessarily a clean process. Enlightenment can be filthy, degenerate, dangerous. Enlightenment is its own reward, its own punishment. You begin to see so much more. And so much more sees you.”

Barron’s reoccurring themes include religion, philosophy, and the meaning of existence, all of which are rendered masterfully in “Shiva, Open Your Eye.”

“Men are afraid of the devil, but there is no devil , just me and I do as I am bid. It is God that should turn their bowels to soup. Whatever God is, He, or It, created us for amusement. It’s too obvious. Just as He created the prehistoric sharks, the dinosaurs , and the humble mechanism that is a crocodile. And Venus fly traps, and black widow spiders, and human beings. Just as He created a world where every organism survives by rending a weaker organism. Where procreation is an imperative, a leech’s anesthetic against agony and death and disease that accompany the sticky congress of mating. A sticky world, because God dwells in a dark and humid place. A world of appetite, for God is ever hungry.”

Damn, Laird! That’s the kind of writing that can “turn your bowels to soup!”

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Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon
Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

Is corn scary? It is a rather bizarre plant. It grows tall and fast and has vaguely human qualities, like corn-silk hair and ears.

I never really thought corn was scary, until I read Stephen King‘s Children of the Corn as a teenager. King made corn creepy.

But before King conjured the Children of the Corn, author/actor Thomas Tryon‘s built Harvest Home (1973), a rural-gothic horror novel that was a major influence not only on King, but appears to have helped shaped the work of T.E.D Klein’s The Ceremonies, and Ira Levin’s novels of the occult.

Set in the fictional corn-fed farming community of Cornwall Coombe, Connecticut, Harvest Home offers a familiar set-up. Narrator Ned Constantine and his wife Beth are fed up with life in New York City, so they take their teenage daughter and move to the country. The Constantines fall in love with country living (for a while) and embrace Cornwall Coombe’s quirky traditions. But, as Tryon notes, sometimes simple beliefs hide wicked and troubling superstitions.

Tryon borrows heavily from Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, (check out my Conjure Wife review here) with it’s powerful cast of female witches and equally memorable cast of wimpy males.

There’s a groovy ‘70s feel to Harvest Home. Like Happy Days, Harvest Home was created in the early ‘70s but reflects a simpler time in American culture. The novel has a cozy movie-of-the-week feel to it as well, which adds to the ’70s vibe. In fact, Harvest Home was made into an NBC mini-series in 1978 called The Dark Secrets of Harvest Home.

Harvest Home is presented more as a gothic mystery than a straight-up horror novel. Tryon’s tome is dulled a bit by time—and by forty years of rip-offs and imitators —but it still manages to hit all the right notes, especially during the racy climax and grimly satisfying Epilogue. Harvest Home finishes strong, and there are not many novels you can honestly say that about.

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Horns by Joe Hill

Horns by Joe Hill
Horns by Joe Hill

Every single one of us has got the devil inside, and nobody knows it better than Ignatius Parrish the narrator of Joe Hill’s novel Horns. Ig wakes after a night of sorrowful drinking to find he’s grown horns on top of his head. Worse yet, the horns bring out the worst in everyone Ig encounters.

Ig isn’t a very popular guy. Most everyone in town suspects he murdered his girlfriend, Merrin — even his own parents. The horns give people permission to tell Ig how they really feel about him. It isn’t pretty.

But Ig’s horny head is a blessing, too. The horns allow him to get to the truth behind Merrin’s murder and mete devilish justice out on the guilty.

Horns has excellent plot and pacing, especially in the first half of the novel. Paired down to its bare bones Horns is a balls-out revenge novella, something straight out of EC comics. But Hill adds depth through flashbacks and character development. Merrin and Iggy get fleshed out nicely, and their story takes on the homespun sweetness of a high school romance.

Hill visits delightfully dark places in Horns. (How fun would it be to push your annoying grandma’s wheelchair down a hill and into a fence?) Hill brings some metaphor to the mayhem, too.

It was something, the way the wheelchair picked up speed, the way a person’s life picked up speed, the way a life was like a bullet aimed at one final target, impossible to slow or turn aside, and like the bullet, you were ignorant of what you were going to hit, would never know anything except the rush and the impact.

Hill finds ways to weave thoughtful contemplation into his revenge narrative.

Pi is an irrational number, incapable of being made into a fraction, impossible to divide from itself. So, too, the soul is an irrational, indivisible equation that perfectly expresses one thing: you.

Even though Iggy’s gone demon, he hasn’t forgotten what it means to be human.

I want you to remember what was good in me, not what was most awful. The people you love should be allowed to keep their worst to themselves.

Some of the symbolism in Horns is a little heavy-handed (Ig’s father and brother are both accomplished “horn players”), but overall Hill brings the story home in fine style. While Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box staggered to the finish line, Horns is a fiendish read with a satisfying conclusion.

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Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines by Richard Laymon

Short Stories: The Mystery and Men's Magazines by Richard Laymon
Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines by Richard Laymon

These stories are a throwback to a simpler time; a time when people drove around in faux wood panel station wagons, wore bell bottoms, and read fiction magazines for entertainment.

That’s right. People used to read. Fiction. For fun! In magazines!

The first Richard Laymon story I ever encountered was “The Champion” published in an early issue of Cemetery Dance magazine. Here was a story filled with grit, unpredictable characters, non-stop action, and a twist ending that would make O. Henry jealous.

I discovered more of Laymon’s signature work in the pages of Cemetery Dance and other small press publications. All of his short fiction was low-down, dirty, and twisted. “Desert Pick-up,” “Oscar’s Audition.” “The Grab.” Each was a gem shinier than the next, all of which are collected in Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines. Why couldn’t I find Laymon’s novels in bookstores? I finally got my hands on a used paperback copy of The Cellar, which turned me into a full-fledged Laymon disciple.

You can see Laymon’s favorite themes in their infancy in this collection. A camping trip interrupted by a knife-wielding maniac is the setting for “Out Of The Woods,” which also displays Laymon’s economic-yet-effective prose.

He grinned as if a glimpse of his big crooked teeth would help me understand better. It did.

Sure, some Richard Laymon short fiction isn’t very original — he riffs on everything from folk tales, to urban legends, to noir detective fiction — but the stories are well crafted, elegant in their simplicity, like Amish furniture.

Some of the stories in Short Stories: The Mystery and Men’s Magazines seem particularly rudimentary. Laymon used to write Easy Reader-style mystery and suspense fiction for both adults and juveniles, and that style comes through in a few of the stories here.

But Laymon had style! Nobody — except perhaps Elmore Leonard or James M. Cain — used dialogue better to advance plot and define characters. Why Richard Laymon was never a big Hollywood screenwriter is a mystery to me.

Miss you, Dick!

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11/22/63 by Stephen King

Stephen King likes to travel back in time, and the creamy, apple pie era he enjoys visiting most often is America between1955 and 1965. King himself came of age during those years, and his personal nostalgia transforms into potent prose in works like “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” “The Body”/ Stand by Me, Christine, The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis, and It.

11/22/63 by Stephen King
11/22/63 by Stephen King

In 11/22/63 King tackles a time traveling tale head on. Our hero, Jake Epping / George Amberson, finds a loophole that allows him to travel from 2011 to Sept 19, 1958.

Jake/George heeds Jethro Tulls’ advice, and goes ” living in the past,” embarking on a five year journey to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Along the way our hero falls in love, which, of course, nearly ruins everything, but ultimately saves the day.

Unlike some of King’s fantastic flights, this one is firmly rooted in fact, and his impressive research into the Kennedy Assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald gives this novel a muscular framework. King’s familiar narrative tone and comfy characters are his trademark, and fans of his folksy style (of which I am one) will have fun with 11/22/63.

As Todd Rundgren suggests, “The whole universe is a giant guitar.” But in 11/22/63, too many trips through the time-trippin’ wormhole creates too many strings, and everything gets thrown out of tune. Curse you, butterfly effect! Ashton Kutcher, too!

There are shades of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Don DeLillo’s Libra here, as well as dozens of other time-traveling / alternate universe / historical fiction novels. King’s contribution to the genre is a fine one.

Kudos to the enhanced ebook for including a 13-minute King-narrated video about 11/22/63, audio clips read by King, an interview with the author, a readers group study kit, a playlist of songs mentioned in the book, and recipes for the artery-clogging Southern fried food served up in novel. Enhanced, indeed!

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The Girl on the Glider by Brian Keene

Brian Keene's The Girl on the Glider, $2.99 ebook.
Brian Keene’s The Girl on the Glider, $2.99 ebook.

The Girl on the Glider introduces us to one of Brian Keene’s most interesting and complex characters—himself.

Keene’s foray into metafiction is a successful one. The Girl on the Glider chronicles Keene’s personal ghost story, as well as his private struggles as a husband, a father, and a cult horror writer with a big fan base but modest bank account.

Keene tips his hat to the authors that have walked this literary road before him; Hunter S. Thompson, Tim Powers, and Stephen King. The Girl On The Glider also shares a thematic bond with Whitley Strieber’s “all-true tales.” Is it easier or more difficult to suspend your disbelief when the storyteller is a known spinner of fantastic tales? Does even matter, so long as the writing is good?

Keene’s ghostly encounter leaves him a changed man — a better man.

The Girl on the Glider has the power to affect readers the same way.

Torn to Pieces by Joseph M. Monks

Torn to Pieces by Joseph M. Monks
$2.99 Kindle Edition

We’ve all read gritty, NYC crime dramas and police procedurals before, but Joseph M. Monks’ Torn to Pieces, hits harder and cuts deeper than most. The chemistry between Detectives Jack Whelan and Burton Carver is similar to Joe R. Lansdale’s brilliant Hap Collins and Leonard Pine novels; I hope Monks has more Whelan/Carver tales to tell. Either way, Torn to Pieces is a hell of a start, with quick pacing and genuinely suspenseful scenes. No matter what your personal or political stance, chances are good you’ll never look at the abortion issue the same way again after reading this novel. Monks has published strong short fiction in the horror genre (“Stuff Outta My Head“), made a film (“The Bunker“), and created the iconic Cry For Dawn comic book. Torn to Pieces is his debut novel, and it’s an impressive effort, his most mainstream work to date, yet one that packs an emotional and visceral punch you won’t find in most crime fiction.