Book Review: “Kind Nepenthe” by Matthew V. Brockmeyer

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I haven’t picked up a thriller in a while.

I snagged a copy of Kind Nepenthe after checking out some reviews and having a quick back-and-forth with author Matthew V. Brockmeyer on Twitter. I was interested in the idea of a supernatural horror story that is based in part on true events.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Kind Nepenthe follows the story of Rebecca, a California post-hippy, who lives in a remote Northern California mountain town along with her daughter Megan and boyfriend Calendula. The three of them are roped into running a marijuana growing operation “off the grid” for an unscrupulous drug dealer named Coyote. This particular area is named “Homicide Hill” which is a not-so-subtle reference to some terrible events in its checkered past.

On another part of the mountain, a meth dealer named “Diesel Dan” is trying to straighten his life out while expecting his first grandchild. Circumstances involving his son DJ, and DJ’s girlfriend Katie, make this more difficult than he’d like though.

Throughout the story, there are strands of the supernatural at play. Brockmeyer teases visions and interactions with ghosts, so the characters aren’t sure if the place is haunted or whether they are going crazy from isolation and drugs.

Kind Nepenthe is a slow burn. It’s plot unfolds at a very leisurely pace, and gives you a large amount of backstory for almost the entire cast. While this is great for character development and realism, I can see some readers being put off by the lack of consistent action. The real meat of the conflict is in the third act, but it takes a while to get there. Plus, the first two acts imply a major conflict between the two casts of characters, which ultimately never happens, as the ending veers off into a different and unexpected direction.

Kind Nepenthe is well written tale of horror and suspense, with a very interesting setting. If you enjoyed The Shining or Mr. Splitfoot then you should probably check it out.

What I Liked:

  • Strong character development
  • Interesting setting and backdrop
  • Some well-placed literary horror references

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Pacing could have been better
  • No major conflict between the main characters seemed like a missed opportunity
  • The ending is very quick and relies on Epilogue
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Book Review: “Popsickle Heart” by J. Peter W.

image of popsickle heart book cover

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

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

Book Review: “C.H.U.D. Lives! (A Tribute Anthology)”

image of a CHUD

Let’s talk about C.H.U.D.

C.annibalistic H.umanoid U.nderground D.wellers to some, C.ontamination H.azard U.rban D.isposal to others (who are buying into the government cover up!)

C.H.U.D. Lives! is a scifi-horror anthology that Crystal Lake Publishing released back in April of this year that expands on the universe of the original 1980’s cult classic film C.H.U.D., but thankfully not on its sequel C.H.U.D. II: Bud The Chud which was horrifying for all the wrong reasons.

The stories range from yarns that build upon key scenes from the movie (whatever happened to that little girl and her grandpa in the phone booth?) to more speculative tales that take us into the future and other locales outside of New York City. The common thread is always C.H.U.D.’s. People that have been exposed to toxic ooze and transform into violent, flesh-eating mutants with glowing yellow eyes.

Like most anthologies, the quality of story varies. I’m happy to report that almost all entries are well written and strong. My favorites were “The City Will Eat You Alive” by Ryan C. Thomas, and “Lost and Found” by Greg Mitchell, with a special mention of “That’s Entertainment!” by Mort Castle due to its timely humor and social satire. Most of these focused on people dealing with C.H.U.D.’s in different horrifying scenarios that called back to the film. The stories that didn’t hit home for me were the more action-oriented offerings. While I’m sure some readers would love them, I’m not really into the whole “military procedural” style of action fiction. If someone uses a sub-machine gun, I don’t care what model it is or how it sounds, specifically.

cover of CHUD Lives anthology book

Crystal Lake Publishing has been knocking it out of the park with the horror anthologies lately. I have been a massive fan of C.H.U.D. since I first saw the movie over two decades ago. In that time, the Internet has shown it’s love as well, but there has been very little in the way of new content for fans. This book fills a much needed gap, and I can definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the film.

If you’ve never seen C.H.U.D. and have even the slightest interest in horror movies, fix that! Grab some popcorn and treat yourself to one of the most beloved cult-schlock gems of the 1980’s. It’s gory, funny, and totally over-the-top. Plus it stars John Heard, and a young Daniel Stern.

Two horribly mutated, glowing, thumbs up!

WHAT I LIKED:

  • C.H.U.D.’s
  • World building that expanded upon key scenes from the film
  • Gross-out violence along with tongue-in-cheek humor

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

  • It was over a little too soon, could have used a few more stories
  • A few entries bordered on “gun p*rn” which I’m not a fan of
  • A couple stories contained ‘howlers’ that the editor should’ve caught before it went to press