book review

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

Book Review: “Vyrmin” by Gene Lazuta

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Long-infected with the genes of the vyrmin–an evil, werewolf-type race–the townsfolk of Harpersville run wild when the Dark Time arrives, and the leadership of the menace will fall to one of the two Norris brothers.

Werewolf stories are dime-a-dozen.

Werewolves (and vampires, and zombies) are so overdone that most horror outlets specifically say “hey don’t send us anything with werewolves, vampires or zombies in it” when you look at their submission guidelines.

So what makes Vyrmin stand out in a sea of lycanthrope also-rans?

Simple. It’s weird.

Originally published in 1992, Gene Lazuta’s Vyrmin is the story of a small Ohio town that harbors a terrible curse. It’s the epicenter of an awakening. The awakening of a long-dormant cosmic evil.

Does this sound like H.P. Lovecraft? Good. Because that’s exactly what it is like.

At the center of this awakening are the Norris brothers, one of whom will inherit the title of “Blood Prince” and oversee the return of the “Dark Times”. These Dark Times are essentially a return to hell-on-Earth when a demonic force turns everyone into werewolf-like creatures that go bonkers and murder everything.

Vyrmin is a strange book. It’s definitely NOT the standard “bitten by a werewolf and the old gypsy said BEWARE” plot line. Lazuta mixes the aofrementioned ‘Lovecraftian’ elements in with the lycanthropes, and some absolutely surreal action.

Seriously, the action sequences are like batsh*t crazy fever dreams. They really shine with excellent description and prose, but are extremely jarring if you’re not ready for them, because they are written in a different tone than the rest of the story.

Insane action sequences aside, my major gripe with Vyrmin was its slow middle. The book starts off strong, ends strong, but like so many novels it has kind of a saggy middle where not a lot happens. There are sequences of action followed by long lulls of exposition. That said, it didn’t keep me from finishing the book.

While not for everyone, I could definitely recommend Vyrmin to any fans of werewolf horror who are looking for something outside of the same old plot lines.

Side note: This is the 2nd re-issue I’ve read from Bloodshot Books. The other, The Breeze Horror, will be an upcoming review. Editor Pete Kahle is doing the Lord’s work over there, resurrecting all these lesser-known but interesting horror novels from the 80’s and 90’s in ebook format with new cover art. It’s really cool to see someone making some more obscure horror stories available again in a convenient and affordable way.

What I Liked:

  • Weird werewolves with human-skin belts
  • Whacked out, almost psychedelic, action sequences
  • Sheriff Conway

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Saggy middle
  • Peaks and valleys of action versus massive expository dialogue
  • Some of those cool action sequences felt like they were from another book/story

 

book review

Book Review: “The Cipher” by Kathe Koja

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Nicholas is a would-be poet and video-store clerk with a weeping hole in his hand – weeping not blood, but a plasma of tears…

Books like The Cipher come along rarely.

One of the strangest, most existentially disturbing horror? novels I’ve read in a while, it’s a gem that is certainly not for everyone.

When video store clerk Nicholas and his sometimes-girlfriend Nakota stumble across a strange hole (The Funhole!) in an abandoned supply closet in his apartment building, they don’t really know what to make of it. Over time, Nakota begins to perform “experiments” by putting things in or near the hole, with frightening results. This includes a camcorder that creates video so intense it beguiles anyone who sees it.  As tension builds, it comes to a head when Nicholas’ hand accidentally goes in the The Funhole and comes out with a bizarre negative stigmata. A “mini Funhole” that begins to grow.

From there, the conflict between Nicholas and Nakota grows, as she assembles an almost cult-like following of artsy weirdos on the fringes of society, who she tempts by showing them the video which them eerily obsessed with the mysteries of The Funhole…and Nicholas.

Koja’s work is a phenomenal piece of writing. It eschews taking us into the Funhole itself, and rather deals with the psychological aspects of how gross, down-and-out people deal with an unknown (and revelatory) situation. The Funhole’s interactions are on the periphery of the story, but it’s presence is at the heart of what drives this horrible group.

And I do mean horrible. This book is full of really unlikable people. Nakota is an effective antagonist because she is a real-world monster. Selfish, arrogant, uncaring and narcissistic. She preys on weakness; the kind Nicholas has in spades. Reader beware if you need “likable characters” to finish a book.

The Cipher is also a technical tour de force. If you want a book that “breaks the rules”, look no further. Written in stream of consciousness narration, it is full of sentence fragments, interjections, collapsing paragraphs, and 4th wall asides. Her prose is beautifully poetic while simultaneously grimy and disgusting.  I’m sure Koja’s editor had a field day with it.

Again, to those interested in challenging writing styles, you’ll love it, but anyone who wants an easy straightforward read may shy away.

Ultimately, I’m not even sure if I’d classify The Cipher as a horror novel, although that’s what Dell Books called it back in the early 1990’s. It’s certainly weird alt-horror, if not an exercise in existential dread and the human condition.

5 awful, disjointed thumbs up.

What I Liked:

  • The Funhole.
  • The slimy sheen of Koja’s characters and prose. Nothing is nice or clean or off limits.
  • Nakota is a monster and a wonderfully realistic villain.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Sometimes the stream of consciousness was too much.
  • The middle sags, just a tiny bit, but it does.
  • It’s long out-of-print and paperback editions are EXPENSIVE.
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The Mysterious Stranger

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Claymation is scary sometimes.

That is my response to “The Mysterious Stranger”, a segment from 1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain.

This clip weirded me out when I first saw it many years ago, and it still does. The premise is this: Mark Twain takes unsuspecting children to meet Satan in some in-between nether realm, and creepiness ensues.

Try to resist watching. I dare you.

Keep in mind, this passed as “edu-tainment” for kids back in the 80’s, along with that Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit that still occasionally gives me nightmares.

I think this weird gem speaks to the level of unshackled creative output (drug abuse?) from that decade. This would never pass focus-testing today, and be cast off into the bowels of YouTube. Rather than being celebrated…in the bowels of YouTube.