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.

A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul TremblayPaul 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.
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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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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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Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King.

Stephen King brings these things upon himself.

It isn’t fair to compare his latest novel, Doctor Sleep, with his landmark work, The Shining. But comparisons are inevitable — Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining.

Critics will rightfully say, “Doctor Sleep is okay, but it isn’t as good as The Shining.” But how could it be? The Shining is a classic (its status doubly bolstered by Stanley’s Kubrick’s equally iconic film adaptation.) The Shining has enjoyed four decades of popularity, accolades, and analysis. Fanboys like me grew up with The Shining as a culture touchstone, a literary benchmark against which all other horror novels were judged.

So King is practically begging for bad reviews for Doctor Sleep. It’s impossible to fill The Shining’s big shoes. Fortunately, King doesn’t even try, allowing Doctor Sleep to take its own path into new literary territories.

Doctor Sleep finds Danny Torrance all grown up, and suffering from the same alcoholism that plagued his father. It’s a subject King seems to know intimately, and the novel’s most authentic moments unfold when Danny Torrance views the world through a 12-stepper’s hardened-yet-knowing gaze.

There are plenty of fumbles in Doctor Sleep. Female hero Abra is inconsistent; wise beyond her years one moment, and inexplicably innocent the next. There’s a family revelation late in the novel that’s hollow and cringe inducing, along with several Freaky Friday -style body swaps that are equally douche-chilly.

Room 217 lady
Bathtub babe is back, and still partying naked in Doctor Sleep.

That doesn’t mean Doctor Sleep is a bad novel, or an unsatisfying read. It’s nice seeing Danny shine again. Tony reprises his role as psychic messenger, and there are sweet cameos by Dick Hallorann, and the ghoulish ghost from Room 217.  Doctor Sleep is well paced, Rose The Hat is a badass villain, and everything wraps up neatly enough.

Doctor Sleep is okay, but it isn’t as good as The Shining.

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I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

I'm Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.
I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.

What if you awoke one morning to find your wife — your soulmate, the love of your life, the person you know better than anyone else — is no longer herself? Instead, she insists she’s a seven-year-old named Lily.

This is the simple-yet-effective premise that drives I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.

Narrator Patrick Burke (a nod to fellow novelist Kealan Patrick Burke) wakes after a night of passionate lovemaking to find his wife, Sam, is gone, and Lily has apparently taken over her body. What do you do when your wife breaks from reality and insists she’s a little girl? Take her to a doctor … then take her toy shopping!

The horror of caring for a loved one who is “gone, yet still here” lies at the heart of I’m Not Sam. The relationships we cherish most in life are frail, and without warning a loved one can suddenly become a stranger. Don’t think so? Talk to anyone who loves a person with mental illness or Alzheimer’s disease.

Patrick is able to “cure” his wife using a chilling and disturbing brand of therapy. Unfortunately the cure may cost them their marriage, and will forever change Patrick and Sam’s perceptions of one another.

The novella’s close, told from Sam’s point of view, feels a bit forced, but Ketchum and McKee deliver with the meat of the story, and its haunting look at the inherent frailty of our most cherished personal relationships.

BOBBY’S BOTTOM LINE: This terse thriller will leave you wanting to hug your loved ones!

Blood & Sawdust by Jason Ridler

Jason Ridler takes a bite out of the vampire genre with his action-packed, fast-paced novel, Blood and Sawdust.

blood & sawdust, Jason Ridler
Blood & Sawdust by Jason Ridler

B&S reads like a backroom MMA bout with vampires, or Fight Club with a supernatural twist. B&S has its origins in movies like Bloodsport and Street Fighter as much as it does the novels of Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. There’s a noir feel to B&S. Damsels in distress, double crossing gangsters, bone-breaking goons — its all here, along with genuinely snappy dialogue and strong pacing which elevates this novel.

Milkwood and Malcolm are lovable losers, and Ridler does a fine job revealing backstory while keeping the tale moving forward. Malcolm is a 13-year-old hustler, living in the shadow of an abusive brother. Malcolm wants to avenge his mother’s murder. Milkwood is a vampire who wants to avenge his late father’s reputation as a “jobber” — the perpetual loser in the professional wrestling ring. Both find what they’re looking for on the fringe fight circuit, where brutal death-matches are held in clandestine locations, away from the eyes of police and regulatory commissions.

Ridler’s fight scenes are savage and engaging, inviting readers into the poetry of violence. There are a couple of groan-worthy twists and turns in Blood and Sawdust, but overall Ridler keeps it humming along nicely, building toward a satisfying conclusion.

I look forward to more tales of Milkwood and Malcolm!

BOB’S BOTTOM LINE:
A fast-paced, neo noir mix of MMA, vampires, ancient evil, and gangsters!

Desperation by Stephen King and The Regulators by Richard Bachman

Sifting through old computer files, I found this November 1996 review of Stephen King’s Desperation and Richard Bachman’s The Regulators. Enjoy! — R

en King Desperation review
Desperation by Stephen King.
Richard Bachman The Regulators review
The Regulators by Richard Bachman.

Stephen King’s Desperation, and The Regulators — penned by King’s alter ego, Richard Bachman — feature the same cast of  characters in polar opposite roles.

In Desperation, the Carver family of Wentworth, Ohio — father Ralph, mother Ellen, son David and daughter Pie — encounter an evil spirit named Tak while crossing the Nevada desert.

In The Regulators, the Carver family — Father David, mother Pie, son Ralphie, and daughter Ellen — are going about their daily routine in suburban Wentworth, Ohio, when their simple existence is turned into a surreal child’s nightmare by (you guessed it) the evil spirit, Tak.

King doesn’t really tell us what Tak is. Evidently, it’s an ancient Lovecraftian spirit trapped beneath the earth’s surface, waiting to be set free. Why? Again, King doesn’t really provide a solid motivation for Tak in Desperation.

Things aren’t much different in The Regulators, though Tak does reveal a few of his favorite earthly pleasures: watching TV, drinking chocolate milk, and feeding off the pain and suffering of humans.

The villainy that is Tak has more holes than Swiss cheese, but Tak isn’t what carries these stories along. That responsibly falls on the shoulders of  King’s compelling characters. Allowing the family members to assume different roles over the course of two novels adds a depth to their characters that no single book could illuminate alone.

One of the more interesting characters is Johnny Marinville, the character most closely identified with the author himself. Marinville is a “literary lion” in both books, and in Desperation, Marinville is making a cross-country trek by motorcycle, much like King himself did on a promotional tour for 1993’s Insomnia.

Desperation is the weightier of the two books, and not just because it’s 300 pages longer. King tries to tackle some larger-than-usual themes in this book, like God’s propensity for “cruel refinement.”

The Regulators is faster-paced and plot driven, leaner and meaner than Desperation. King doesn’t tackle any major issues here, just tells a whirlwind story. Maybe writing under the Bachman pseudonym allows King a certain “non-artistic” freedom. The Regulators is packed with lots of  delightfully fun blood, guts, and gunplay.

Horror! Mystery! Cheap! Free!

eMysteryBargainssidebarOne of the drawbacks of the ebook revolution is the lack of used bookstores. What was better than searching the shelves for second-hand bargain reads? You could walk out with a big bag of books for twenty bucks. Awesome! eHorrorBargainssidebar

Fortunately, Brian James Freeman has made the hunt for ebook bargains a breeze. Check out these sites daily for free/cheap reads in the horror and mystery generes.

http://www.emysterybargains.com

http://www.ehorrorbargains.com/

Afraid by Jack Kilborn

Afraid by Jack Kilborn, $4.99 Kindle edition.

Joe Konrath (aka Jack Kilborn, aka J.A. Konrath) is a kind of folk hero to struggling authors everywhere. His blog, A Newbie’s Guide To Publishing, outlines his success as a self-published novelist, and encourages others to follow a similar path. He makes a compelling argument for DIY book publishing, and the demise of the industry’s traditional New York publishing houses. Your mileage may vary, of course, when it comes to self-publishing (in fact, your mileage will likely be that of a Hummer with low tire pressure and the AC blasting) but Konrath gives self-pubbed authors hope. If he can do it, well, so can you!

Well, you won’t unless you can write with Konrath’s skill and precision. Afraid is a taut, tight thriller, packed with harrowing scenes of genuine suspense and terror. His nefarious Red Ops, a band of killers turned soldiers via brain implants, are a fearsome bunch, indeed. Afraid begins with a sequence of terrifying scenes, and ends as a tale about family bonds and redemption for past sins. It’s a damn fine novel, which is what all writers—self-pubbed or not—need to create in order to succeed.