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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The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin
The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve is a well-written action thriller, a good, solid novel. But it doesn’t hold a candle to The Passage, the first book in author Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic vampire series.

The Twelve suffers from the same “middle child syndrome” that plagues so may “Book 2s” in a trilogy series. It’s neither a beginning, nor an end. The Twelve also has to follow in The Passage’s deep literary footprints, which is no small task.

There are (too) many of books about zombies/vampires overrunning the planet. But The Passage turned the genre around by introducing a wholly original solution to the age-old “zombie apocalypse” problem. Amy, the young hero of The Passage, gives all the mindless monsters their memories and identities back before dispatching their souls to the afterlife. It’s a beautiful and compassionate moment at the climax of The Passage.

There are no such beautiful moments in The Twelve. There are a lot of terrorist acts by rebel insurgents. There is frequent refugee relocation. Lots of stuff blows up. The “good guys” gather in one part of the country while the “bad guys” gather in another—one of many nods to/rip-offs of Stephen King’s The Stand you’ll encounter in The Twelve.

The Twelve is to The Passage as Alien is to Aliens. Alien is the story of a monster stalking humanity. Aliens is about paramilitary planning and war. The Twelve is more of a military action tale than a supernatural thriller.

Cronin is great storyteller, and his lyrical prose paints vivid pictures. I hope he recaptures The Passage‘s literary magic in the last novel in this trilogy—The City of Mirrors—due next year.

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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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Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Author Rick Riordan found a way to make 6th grade Social Studies interesting by giving Greek mythology a modern update and employing a likeable adolescent hero in this first installment of his Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series, The Lightning Thief.

Percy is a dyslexic, ADHD kid who has been kicked out of six schools in the past six years. He’s also a demigod — a half-human, half-God hybrid. Percy’s Mom is a nice lady named Sally Jackson, and his father is one of  Olympus’ Big Three — Zeus, Poseidon or Hades. Learning his father’s identity is the first of many quests for Percy.

Riordan taught English and Social Studies and is the father of an ADHD child, all of which he incorporates into the fictional world of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Riordan also uses Neil Gaiman’s American Gods formula of putting mythological gods in modern day America, breathing new life into the stuffy, dusty world of centaurs, satyrs, and sea nymphs. The Lightning Thief plays out like an action adventure flick rather than a retelling of Bulfinch’s Mythology.

As Percy travels the country trying to solve the mystery of Zeus’ missing lightning bolt, he battles some major monsters, including Medusa, Echidna, and Chimera (as well as avoiding the allure of Kronos’ hypnotic whisper from the dark depths of a Tartaran pit). Things get a little heavy along the way and some parts of The Lightning Thief might be scary for kids — but isn’t that the mark of all great children’s literature?

There are enough backstabbings and betrayals to make The Lightning Thief read more like junior high crime noir than Greek mythology. Riordan keeps the plot twisting and turning right up until the very end — which, of course, leaves the door open for the other four books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

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Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Reading Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates is like slipping into a fever dream. It’s all dark winter mood and brooding atmosphere in this novel.

   Bellefleur covers three generations of the Bellefleur family over the course of more than 200 years. Ms. Oates builds this long, sprawling novel with long, sprawling sentences filled with parenthetical asides and a boatload of commas. In its way, each sentence in Bellefleur is like a tiny fairytale waiting to be unwrapped. The result is a finely crafted novel that draws you in and keeps your there.
   The Bellefleurs seem blessed and cursed in equally extreme measure. The Bellefleur men have a history of violence, rape, and severe gambling problems.
“The Bellefleur curse, it was sometimes thought, had to do with gambling.”
   While Yolande Bellefleur suggests:
“  “The curse on us is that we can’t love right!” She was immediately hushed up. And cautioned never to say such a bizarre thing again, or even to think it.””
   The Bellefleurs are not the kind of family you want to live near. They are to be feared, not just because they can buy and sell you with their fortunes, but because they’re mentally unstable and have a taste for revenge. A simple, brutal message is passed on to all Bellefleur children:
“Nothing is quite so profound as revenge, they were told. Nothing quite so exquisite.”
   The Bellefleur women hold the real power in the clan. They work behind the scenes to manipulate the men—who quite frankly, can use a guiding hand. Led by the beguiling Leah, (“If any Bellefleur succeeded in this century, it would be Leah”) the Bellefleur women propell this family — and novel — forward.
   Are the strange visitors to Bellefleur castle—the great cat Mahalaleel, (“You’re a poor lost thing, like any of us,”) Love the pet spider (…his gloved hands acted as if by instinct, as if, in the dim Bellefleur past, they had killed many a Love, just by holding it fast, gripping it fast, and squeezing…), abused orphan Little Goldie, the troll servant Nightshade—ghosts of family members come back to haunt the manor? What about the murderous monster bird know as the Noir Vulture (one of the coolest, creepiest creatures in all of horror fiction)?
“The baby was lost. As women’s screams lifted from the garden the bird rose higher and higher, with a noisy muscular grace, already jabbing at the helpless prey in its claws— tearing and stabbing at it with its sharp beak— so that pieces of flesh and skeins of blood fell…”
   Even though the Bellefleurs themselves don’t seem entirely comfortable in their weird world, they also seem quite content knowing they’ll never leave. (Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, anybody?) Bellefleur is gothic at its most gothic, (before gothic fiction was taken over by sad emo teens and homoerotic vampires) and Ms. Oates at her literary best.
   Personal Note: A high school English teacher (Ms. Savage) recommended this book to me when I was a sophomore, around 1983, three years after Bellefleur was published. She knew I was a Stephen King fan and thought I might appreciate Ms. Oates modern gothic. But I wasn’t ready for Bellefleur as a 16-year-old boy. I bailed out after the first chapter. But I’m glad I revisited this novel two decades later, when I could truly appreciate it. Good call, Ms. Savage.
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The Woman by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

The Woman by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee
The Woman by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

Remember the fine young cannibals? Not the band that sang, “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Good Thing.” The band of cannibals that ate tourists along the coast of Maine in Jack Ketchum‘s classic novels, Off Season and Offspring. (Know by fans as Ketchum’s Dead River Series.)

The Woman is back in all her feral glory, and authors Ketchum and Lucky McKee put her through the paces in The Woman. The last surviving member of her cave-dwelling, people-eating clan, the Woman is captured by a country lawyer / mad man who locks her up in his basement. Creepy Christopher Cleek, Esq. kicks it up a notch by getting his wife and kids involved in the fiendish torture, which gives The Woman some of the same sadistic feel that permeated Ketchum’s landmark novel, The Girl Next Door.

Cannibal girl isn’t the only one suffering at hands of Cleek (and his growing-up-creepy son, Brian). Father and son feed a corpse to a pack of wild dogs (and another, far more disturbing animal that shares the pen), and then sit back to soak in the soothing truth of extreme violence.
There are bits of her scattered everywhere.
“Doesn’t even look real anymore,” Brian says, “does it, dad.”
He’s every bit as engaged as Cleek is.
“Does to me,” he says. He doesn’t know particularly what he means by that but it has the ring of truth so he says it again. “Does to me.”
Cleek’s wife, daughters, and secretary are all victims of his manipulation. His teenage daughter wonders if the cycle of abuse can ever be broken.
Would she inherit this?  And gradually melt into the ghost of some unknown man’s desires?
And later she considers the deepest scars of all.
When you’re young pain can take a long time to go away.  And leave its residue forever.”
But the women in The Woman are all fighters and survivors, with the Woman representing raw feminine power at its most primal. Even as the Woman is brutalized, Ketchum and McKee celebrate her power, survival skills, and cunning. She is the true hero here and it’s a blast when she finally breaks free and kicks ass. Ketchum and McKee know revenge is a dish best served cold … and bloody. The Woman leaves readers wickedly satisfied.
Besides, there are worse things than being a cannibal cavegirl. At least The Woman has a moral compass and a sense of family. Peel back the onionskin veneer of small-town lawyer Christopher Cleek and you’ll find the true heart of darkness.
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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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Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski
Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski‘s intrepid hero / alter ego Hank Chinaski is back in this funny satire of Tinsel Town in the late 1980s.

Culled from his experience writing the screenplay for the film Barfly, Bukowski’s Hollywood rips into the shallowness of show business. The plot twists are so absurd, the characters so vapid and vain, they must be based on real life.

Bukowski’s cynical take on movie audiences (“People became so used to seeing shit on film that they no longer realized it was shit,”) versus novel/poetry readers is insightful (“Almost anything upsets or insults a movie audience, while people who read novels and short stories love to be upset and insulted.”)

The best bits of Hollywood happen when Bukowski looks at the role of the writer in the film business.

“Who ever photographed the writer? Who applauded? … It was damn sure just as well: the writer was where he belonged: in some dark corner, watching.”

Bukowski’s portrayal of Barfly leads Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway as characters Jack Bledsoe and Francine Bower is particularly interesting, especially since he’s depicting a fresh-faced Rourke, when the rollercoaster of Rourke’s career was just cresting the top its first hill.

Like the town it is named after, Bukowski’s Hollywood is fun, funny, droll, and pathetic. There’s a lot of wine drinking, and the love affair between Hank and Sarah — the only two “normal” characters in the novel — is sincere and sweet.

Hollywood doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Ham on Rye, or the laughs of Post Office, but it is still vintage Bukowski, and you can’t go wrong with that. As Hank Chianski notes:

“Maybe writing was a form of bitching. Some just bitched better than others.”

Bitch on, Bukowski, you beautiful bastard!

charles-bukowski

 

 

 

 

 

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The Shining by Stephen King

I re-read Stephen King’s The Shining recently in preparation for the release of its sequel, Doctor Sleep. I’m glad I did.

The Shining by Stephen King
The Shining by Stephen King

The Shining is a beautifully written novel, simple, elegant, and powerful. There are only four main characters: Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, his son Danny, and the Overlook Hotel itself.

At its core, The Shining is an update of the classic “trapped in a haunted house” tale. It’s also the story of a family coming apart at the seams, strained relationships blowing up like the ancient boiler in the basement of the Overlook.

Jack and Wendy are clearly drawn, easily identifiable, sympathetic characters. Danny, with his ability to shine, propels the story forward. His psychic abilities awaken the hotel’s wicked past, and the Overlook preys on the weakest link — recovering alcoholic Jack.

Stanley Kubrick turned The Shining into an iconic film (which King himself hated). While Kubrick’s film is a classic, don’t forget it was Big Daddy Steve who created this nightmare in the first place. King was the one who created such memorable lines as, “I’m going to bash your brains in, Wendy. I’m going to bash them right the fuck in,” and, “Your wife and son need correction, if I may be so bold, sir.”  All this and Redrum, too. And don’t forget the wicked witch in Room 217.

I read The Shining for the first time in 1980 when I was 12 years old. This book has lost none of its impact over the past three decades. It’s still a magnificent artistic achievement.

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The Cellar by Richard Laymon

The Cellar by Richard Laymon
The Cellar by Richard Laymon

Some people dismiss the late Richard Laymon as a hack horror writer.

Those people should go fuck themselves.

An originator of the early splatterpunk movement, Richard Laymon was an unsung artist who made the job of “novelist” look easy with his literary virtuosity and prolific output.

But, like Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Laymon got no respect. He never found a big American audience for his work during his lifetime. He pumped out thrillers alongside Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, John Saul, and Stephen King, but never achieved the fame and fortune of his contemporaries. Critics dismissed his work as too sexiest and/or too violent. Laymon was an “underground favorite” who had a hard time finding American publishers for his novels.

Fortunately, Laymon found an audience overseas. His sales in England and Australia during the ’80 and ‘90s kept his literary career alive. He was able to eek out a living, feed his family, and keep a roof over their heads.

This alone qualifies him as a literary hero.

Things improved for Laymon in the late ‘90s. Leisure Books published his back catalog to great success. Laymon’s American fan-base grew.

But — because life is as random and violent as … well, a Richard Laymon novel — Richard Laymon died of a massive heart attack in February 2001.

The Cellar by Richard Laymon, paperback 1st edition.
The Cellar by Richard Laymon, paperback 1st edition.

The Cellar (1980) is Richard Laymon’s first published novel, and one of his best (rivaled only by 1988’s Resurrection Dreams). It’s the first volume in The Beast House Series, and showcases Laymon’s lean writing style, penchant for fast-paced plots, and masterful use of dialogue.

The Cellar is a blend of creature-feature and crime thriller, like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. A mother and daughter flee an abusive boyfriend just released from prison. But their car breaks down in remote Malcasa Point, home of a strange tourist attraction called The Beast House. According to local legend, several gruesome murders occurred in the The Beast House, committed by “demonic beasts” that allegedly still haunt the place.

Mom and Daughter cross paths with a Monster Bounty Hunter, a Creepy Old Man, and The Creepy Beast House Homeowners before Psycho Ex-Boyfriend makes the scene, and fireworks fly.

But things really go ass over teakettle when The Beasts show up, hellacious gargoyle-like creatures sporting enormous, gnarled erections. Creepy, indeed.

The true gem of The Cellar is its epilogue. Laymon’s crafts a twist(ed) ending using only dialogue that is one of the best endings in any novel ever. Period.

Richard Laymon press shot
RIP Richard Laymon, 1947-2001.

Long live. Richard Laymon! I am humbled by his greatness!

Miss you, Dick.

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