Book Review: “Popsickle Heart” by J. Peter W.

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Popsickle Heart is bizarro fiction.

If you’re not familiar with the genre, here is Wikipedia’s definition. It’s important to grasp what bizarro is to give you a frame of reference for this review.

I’ve read numerous bizarro books and stories, and some of my own work has even been classified as “bizarro” by editors. I had seen some buzz about Popsickle Heart on Twitter and decided to check it out. While not without problems, I enjoyed the book.

Like most bizarro books, I’d classify Popsickle Heart as a novella. It’s brief and can be finished in one or two sittings. I enjoy novellas because they tend to strip away a lot of the extra fluff and get right to the point, which is especially important when you’re dealing with strange subject matter. So if you dig short reads, that is already a bonus.

Popsickle Heart is a story about Edgar the clown. He meets a girl, The Wheelchair Spot, and immediately falls for her. When he finds out she has lost her heart, Edgar undertakes a quest to retrieve it. Weirdness ensues.

The surreal suburban/carnival fantasy that J. Peter W. lays out is wonderful. Edgar drives a crappy old ice cream truck, with perpetually peeling paint, around a town full of skinless and eyeless people. Children torment him, demanding ice cream from a van with empty freezers. His home has been assaulted by some kind of weird ooze and a bunch of cigarette smoking toughs that have been hired to box up and move all his belongings with seemingly no explanation. Even his candy peg-legged neighbor Rod doesn’t know anything about it.

Along for this insane ride is Edgar’s sock puppet, Lumbee. Easily my favorite part of the book, Lumbee is a brilliant character. He is angry, brash, and well personified. The dialogue between Edgar and Lumbee is great, and you often forget it is a crazy clown talking to himself…or is it?

Edgar and Lumbee find themselves transported into a parallel dimension of sorts, the Carn-Evil, where cardboard clown cut outs and statue people wage war against each other over cupcake eyeballs. Yes, you just read that correctly.

He meets a mysterious Pink Woman who will lead him further into this realm of strangeness, and ultimately to what he seeks.

I don’t want to go into more plot detail as it would spoil what is a fairly short book, so lets talk a little bit about mechanics.

J. Peter W. does a solid job with characterization in just a few pages. Edgar, Lumbee, and Rod are standouts that probably get the most detail. Some of the other characters a a bit flat, literally and figuratively. His prose is great, and often poetic in some free-flowing sentences. However, I had one major gripe. He repeatedly ended a number of paragraphs with similes and metaphors. Some of the worked, while others were just way too strange and nonsensical, and seemed “weird for the sake of weird” which pulled me out of the story.

I will recommend Popsickle Heart to anyone who enjoys bizarro fiction, or absurdist/surrealist works. It is a quick and fun read, and the relationship between Edgar and Lumbee elevate it beyond its flaws.

What I Liked:

  •  The strange plot, juxtaposing banal suburbs with an insane carnival
  • The existential horror of eyeless children demanding ice cream
  • Lumbee

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Repeated similes and metaphors that fell flat
  • Some characters needed to be fleshed out just a little more
  • The book could have been about 20 pages longer and explored more of the Carn-Evil
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Book Review: “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson

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A great book about vampires.

A terrible source for film adaptations.

I recently finished I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. This perennial horror favorite has been on my “to read” list forever. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to it, it ruined one of my favorite Charlton Heston movies.

I Am Legend tells the story of Robert Neville. A California man who is the lone survivor of an apocalyptic extinction event. A terrible plague swept mankind, killing nearly everyone, and turning any survivors into sub-human vampires thirsty for blood.

Neville spends his days searching for basic necessities and repairing damage to his home which is regularly assaulted by mobs of vampires every night.

It’s a short book, and the plot is very straightforward, but deeply poignant in comparison to most scifi/horror. So rather than give anything away, I’ll tell you a few reasons why it is far better than any of the three films that are based on it.

The Last Man on Earth (1964): Vincent Price plays “Robert Morgan”, and while the plot is pretty accurate to the book, the movie is clumsily executed and just not scary. I Am Legend does an excellent job of contrasting Robert Neville’s alcohol-fueled loneliness and tedium with points of action and sheer terror when he faces mobs of the undead. This movie fails on that major point.

The Omega Man (1971): Charlton Heston is a much more ass-kicking and brash Robert Neville. This Neville is a military scientist, and up against “The Family” who are a cult of nocturnal mutants that resent him as the only unharmed survivor of a biological war. The Omega Man gets a lot of the socio-political themes of the book right, and makes the antagonists a reasoning threat with a named leader. Where it falls apart is by adding a bunch of other survivors and losing the themes of madness and isolation too early. This all leads to a “Hollywood” ending that is unsatisfying.

I Am Legend (2007): Ugh. Where to begin. First, it’s in New York, not California. Second, Neville is a genius military scientist, AND indirectly responsible for the plague. In the book, Neville is a factory worker who is an “every man”. He learns by spending time at the local library. The vampires in this are also dumb animals, with no higher reasoning. This totally negates most of the social and existential themes of the book, reducing the story to be about the guilty redemption quest of the protagonist.

Long story short, read I Am Legend. It’s a phenomenal book. Well-written, and way ahead of its time. No wonder so many future works of horror and science fiction tip their hat to it.

What I Liked

  • Creative plot, excellent twist
  • Tight, pragmatic prose. Not too bland, but nothing flowery
  • An every man protagonist you could get behind, even if he was a drunk

What I Didn’t Like

  • A little too short. I wanted to see more of the barren world
  • The subplot with the main villain didn’t end how I’d hoped
  • That I now realize it has never had an adequate movie adaptation

 

Book Review: “Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe” by Thomas Ligotti

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It isn’t often I finish a book and list it as a “favorite”, but Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti are now amongst my favorite collections of short stories.

I received the combined volume, released as part of the “Penguin Classics” series, as a gift. I’ve been working my way through it over the past few months and I can finally sit down to pen a review. Now if only I can figure out where to start…

Everything about these books is dense. Dense prose, dense concepts, even a dense foreward by Jeff VanderMeer. His description of Ligotti’s work is both praise, and a warning to the reader. I only came to understand it after finishing the books.

At a fundamental level, Ligotti’s writing is weird horror. By “weird” I mean the style of horror that invokes nihilistic cosmic dread, in the Lovecraftian vein. Light on gore and overt scares, it leaves you with a disturbed sense of uneasiness and disillusion. Recurring themes of puppets, dreams, clowns, and inescapable fate are threaded through both books, as are images of strange worlds that exist just behind the facade of our own reality.

Ligotti’s prose is exquisite and intimidating. He’s not afraid to use fifteen words when he only needs three. Between this and the themes of raw existential horror that permeate his work , I call this “literature”.download (2)

I’d put up this collection as proof the horror genre can transcend pulp stories, and be considered actual literature. Tales like “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and “The Shadow at The Bottom of The World” are masterwork short stories. These aren’t monsters and aliens like Stephen King or Dean Koontz provide to you. There is something fundamentally unnerving about Ligotti’s tales that gets to the core of human existence, in all of its absurd horror. Decayed urban landscapes, inevitable death, and bizarre untrustworthy narrators abound.

Of the two books, Grimscribe is the stronger and more even-handed. I enjoyed a number of the stories in Songs… but they were of varying quality. Grimscribe feels much more confident and uniform. His use of dark, ironic humor is also better honed in this second collection.

downloadI would recommend Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe to readers who normally don’t like horror, but enjoy traditional literature. However, I would NOT recommend it to horror fans who enjoy a more straightforward, tangible, “pulpy” genre style. These stories are literally tiring. Every new page greets you with a wall of words, and very little white space. They demand full attention, and the thought provoking concepts they present take time to mull over and unpack. It’s no wonder it took me almost three months to get through roughly 450 pages.

That said, these stories are worth the investment for anyone who enjoys tales of dread and existential horror. They’re the kind that stick with you and rattle around in your head for days after you read them.

What I Liked

  • Beautifully crafted, poetic prose
  • Thoughtful explorations of high-concept horror
  • Really creepy puppets and clowns

What I Didn’t Like

  • Uneven quality of stories in the first collection
  • Stories were almost exclusively written in 1st person POV, which got repetitive at times
  • Reading it was such a mental exercise, it took a long time to finish

The Active Word Checklist

Hot on the heels of “The Weak Word Checklist”, another great post by K.M. Allan with an “Active Word” checklist. Another one to bookmark for reference when you’re re-writing those drafts.

K.M. Allan

“Keep your prose active.” It’s one of the most well-known pieces of writing advice and one of the most frustrating.

Sometimes when writing, especially when you’re first starting out, you have no idea what words are making your prose non-active. You’re just writing, using the words that sound right.

It’s not until you see the difference creating an active voice makes to your story that you understand why it’s a tried-and-true recommendation. Take the following sentences, for example…

Non-Active: Sarah’s fingers fumbled in her skirt pocket, trying to reach for her cell phone.
Active: Sarah’s fingers fumbled in her skirt pocket for her cell phone.

Non-Active: The fire at the entrance had reached one of the glass doors and was turning it black.
Active: The fire at the entrance reached one of the glass doors, turning it black.

Non-Active: When her gaze crossed the entrance, she couldsee someone standing in the middle…

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